Regine Debatty is known for her writings on the intersection between art, science, technology, and social issues. She writes and lectures internationally about the way artists, hackers and designers use technology as a medium for critical discussion.
Publisher MIT Presswrites: Today, in the age of CCTV, drones, medical body scans, and satellite images, photography is increasingly decoupled from human agency and human vision. In Nonhuman Photography, Joanna Zylinska offers a new philosophy of photography, going beyond the human-centric view to consider imaging practices from which the human is absent. Zylinska argues further that even those images produced by humans, whether artists or amateurs, entail a nonhuman, mechanical element—that is, they involve the execution of technical and cultural algorithms that shape our image-making devices as well as our viewing practices. At the same time, she notes, photography is increasingly mobilized to document the precariousness of the human habitat and tasked with helping us imagine a better tomorrow. With its conjoined human-nonhuman agency and vision, Zylinska claims, photography functions as both a form of control and a life-shaping force.
Zylinska explores the potential of photography for developing new modes of seeing and imagining, and presents images from her own photographic project, Active Perceptual Systems. She also examines the challenges posed by digitization to established notions of art, culture, and the media. In connecting biological extinction and technical obsolescence, and discussing the parallels between photography and fossilization, she proposes to understand photography as a light-induced process of fossilization across media and across time scales.
The often uncanny-looking photographs that are devoid of human (vast, depopulated expansive landscapes, for example);
A second type of non human photographs are the ones that have not been made by the human: images produced by traffic control cameras, microphotography equipment, medical body scans, satellites, night cameras, Google Street View, drones, etc. For the author, this type of nonhuman photography can also be the result of deep-time “impressioning” processes, such as fossilization;
Finally, the term can also define the photographs that are not for the human and that escape our understanging. Mosty QR codes and other algorithmic modes of machine communication that rely on photographic technology.
Author Joanna Zylinska combines media studies with philosophy, cultural theory and other humanistic disciplines to make us consider the role that the proliferation of images, and especially images detached from human agency and vision, can play in the age of the Anthropocene. For her, photography can do more than visually represent this new, daunting geological epoch. It can also make us look beyond the anxieties brought about by the possibility of the end of world as we know it and produce new ways of seeing that are more ethical, more responsible and less anthropocentric than the ones we are familiar with.
Nadav Kander, Dust (The Aral Sea I, Officer’s Housing, Kazakhstan), 2011
There are many reasons why i’d like to recommend this book to you: its limpid style, its perspectives on a media that has become so ubiquitous many have stopped taking it seriously, the portrayal of the mutual intertwining between organic and machinic agents in the production of vision, the parallels the author makes between biological extinction and technical obsolescence, etc. What made the book particularly engrossing is its anchoring in technology, cultural studies and art. Zylinska demonstrates her deep understanding of these different viewpoints when she uses photographic works to illustrate and comment on each of her arguments. I’ll close this overview of Nonhuman Photography with some of these artworks:
Erica Scourti put some of her family photos through the ‘search by image’ function of google. The result is a collection of images of and taken by strangers. By creating multiple mirror versions of her own life, the artist invites us to reassess our perception of what counts as human uniqueness.
For the Encounters series, Véronique Ducharme used a hunting camera which detects movement and heat to trigger the exposure. The animals portrayed exist beyond human control. Their ghostly images could come from a world devoid of any human.
The delicate and colourful sculptures that the bulls above are carrying on their back are made from semen straws. These plastic straws are storage receptacles used in the process of artificially inseminating cows. They come in a variety of colours to help distinguish between different bull’s semen while being stored in liquid nitrogen.
Each straw sculpture has been specifically crafted by artist Maria McKinney for the animal whose genetic signature it denotes.
McKinney‘s project Sire (a “sire” is a bull used specifically for breeding purposes) investigates genetics in cattle breeding. Through these sculptures and their photographic documentation, the artist not only explores the past and future of humanity’s efforts to shape nature but she also reveals the hidden systems behind beef and milk production.
Maria McKinney, video (still from the video), 2016
In pre-Christian Europe, people would perform a series of rituals in an attempt to influence the future behavior of nature. One of these practices involved crafting corn dolls, a figurine made by binding straw with the final sheaf of that year’s crop.
Today, genomics and its deep understanding of the complex patterns held within the structure of DNA give us the ability to manipulate how nature behaves in future generations of animal and plant species. With this field of science, scientists are now able to direct breeding strategies and conceive more ‘profitable’ animals.
McKinney‘s photographs and sculptures consider the newly proposed breeding objectives to ‘design’ the cow of the future: it would have to produce a large quantity of milk and meat, present good reproductive performance, live a long and healthy life, be docile and easy to manage, have a low environmental footprint, etc.
Throughout her project, the artist was in constant dialog with scientists. She worked with quantitative geneticist Dr. Donagh Berry, genome biologist Prof. David MacHugh and Head of Veterinary Clinical Studies Prof. Michael Doherty. The artist also consulted with a veterinarian and worked closely with the animal’s handlers to ensure the animals were not made uncomfortable or distressed while making the work. As for the bulls themselves, they are pedigree animals from Dovea Genetic, an artificial insemination co-operative with a bull stud farm in Ireland.
One of the many reasons why i found McKinney‘s work important is that she not only shows her work in art galleries but she also exhibited the sculptures at events attended by the farming community, including the National Ploughing Championships, Ireland’s foremost annual outdoor agricultural show:
I asked the artist how familiar farmers are with these fairly new breeding techniques. She explained me that “artificial insemination has been common practice for quite a few decades, whereas the use of genomics in cattle breeding has only been introduced in the last number of years. Farmers are being asked to put these breeding strategies into practice. They are the ones taking scientific theory into reality. They do however not blindly trust and often there is pushback from them, when they realize something that perhaps the scientists do not (in particular in relation to monetary gain promised by the scientific advantage). They know their animals and line of work very well, and I got the impression from speaking to some farmers that sometimes the ideal, controlled environment of scientific labs does not exactly always translate into the reality of farming.
And again, there is never a guarantee that the desired genetics of the bull will get passed down to the progeny (offspring).”
I was also curious (and naive) about the reason why artificial insemination is such a widespread practice. She told me that it is “because these animals are potentially dangerous to keep – at least a couple of people are killed every year by bulls in Ireland alone, so farmers do opt for artificial insemination.”
“The males of this bovine species are a lot more objectified than their female counterparts,” McKinney continued. “They are kept in basically quarantine farms like Dovea. They are treated very well here, probably some of the best pampered in the country. If they are not kept healthy both in feed and body, then it doesn’t matter how good their genetics are. Genetics is only really half of it. The environment an animal is kept in is equally important if they are to thrive and their positive genetics given the opportunity to express. This is the same for humans – I’ve been looking into epigenetics more recently.”
Maria McKinney, Sire at the Wellcome Collection (exhibition view.) Photo: Michael Bowles, Wellcome Collection
My favourite quote from our online conversation was a response to my concern about how we instrumentalize other living beings, how we customize them according to our desires:
“These bulls are more and more hidden away and people don’t really think about them. Most people do not realize the day to day reality for these animals. I realized once I made this work, that it actually made them visible again. People couldn’t turn away, as the photographs are large scale and are quite confronting. The animals mostly are looking directly at the camera. They are present.
I am of course concerned about the position of animals on earth today. We consider them so separate, forgetting our own animal origins. Yet, we have benefited from their nutrition for centuries. Their muscle has provided us with both sustenance and brawn (cattle were also draught animals before mechanization). They have fueled and helped build the society we now find ourselves, while we continually push them to the margins.”
Maria McKinney’s work is part of the exhibition Somewhere in Between, on view at the Wellcome Collection in London until 27 August 2018.
If the questions raised by McKinney’s project interest you, then you might enjoy the following podcast: The New Animals which looks at animals genetically engineered for human consumption.
Publisher NYU Press writes: Run a Google search for “black girls”—what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls,” the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society. In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.
UN Women campaign, 2013. Credit: Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai
UN Women campaign, 2013. Credit: Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai
Back in 2009, Safiya Umoja Noble googled the words “black girls.” To her horror, the search yielded mostly pornographic results. A similar quest for “white girls” gave out far less demeaning content. The lewd results from that google search are far less prominent nowadays but this doesn’t mean that Noble’s inquiry into how race and gender are embedded into google’s search engine has lost its purpose. Google, her book demonstrates, is still a world in which the white male gaze prevails.
The author sets the stage for her critique of corporate information control by debunking the many myths and illusions that surround internet. She explains that, no, the Google search engine is neither neutral nor objective; yes, Google does bear some responsibility in its search results, they are not purely computer-generated; and no, Google is not a service, a public information resource, like a library or a school.
Google is not the ideal candidate for the title of ‘greatest purveyor of critical information infused with a historical and contextual meaning.’ First, Google might claim that it is an inclusive company, but its diversity scorecard proves otherwise. While it is slowly improving, it’s still nothing worth shouting over the rooftops about. And it’s not just Google, a similar lack of diversity can be observed all over Silicon Valley.
Another reason why we shouldn’t trust Google to provide us with credible, accurate and neutral information is that its main concern is advertising, not informing. That’s why we should be very worried. While public institutions such as universities, schools, libraries, archive and other memory spaces are loosing state funding (the book focuses on the USA but Europe isn’t a paradise either in that respect), private corporations and their black-boxed information-sorting tools are taking over and gaining greater control over information and thus over the representation of cultural groups or individuals.
Noble ties in these concerns about technology with a few observations regarding the sociopolitical atmosphere in her country: disingenuous ideologies of ‘colourblindness’, the rise of “journalism” that courts clicks and advertising traffic rather than quality in its reporting, a head of state known for his affinities with white supremacy and disinformation and a climate characterized by hostility towards unions, movements such as Black Lives Matter.
What makes Algorithms of Oppression. How Search Engines Reinforce Racism particularly interesting is that its author doesn’t stop at criticism, she also suggests a few steps that we (the internet users), Google, its Sili Valley ilk and the government should take in order to achieve an information system that doesn’t reinforce current systems of domination over vulnerable communities.
Noble strongly calls for public policies that protect the rights to fair representation online. This would start with a regulation of techno giants like Google that would prevent it from holding a monopoly over information.
She also urges tech companies to hire more women, more black people or more Latinos to diversify their tech workforce, but also to bring in critically-minded people who are experts in black studies, ethnic studies, American Indian studies, gender and women’s studies and Asian American studies as well as other graduates who have a deep understanding of history and critical theory.
Noble also encourages internet users to ask themselves more often how the information they have found has emerged and what its social and historical context might be.
Finally, the author suggests that non profit and public research funding should be dedicated to explore alternatives to commercial information platforms. These services wouldn’t be dependent on advertising and would pay closer attention to the circulation of patently false or harmful information.
Algorithms of Oppression is a powerful, passionate and thought-provoking publication. It build on previous research (such as Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction) but it also asks new questions informed by a black feminist lens. And while Noble’s book focuses on Google, much of her observations and lessons could be applied to many of the tech corporations that mediate our everyday hyper-connected life.
Many of you have probably heard of Agbogbloshie, the biggest and most infamous e-waste dump in the world. That’s where most of the “Western” world’s electronics is (illegally) sent to rest and be dismantled by young people who ruin their health breathing toxic fumes and trying to salvage the precious metals our trash contains.
But our old bits and pieces of hardware don’t just contain copper and gold, they also hold personal, corporate and military information that can be retrieved and used by cyber criminals.
KairUs art collective Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle
The duo KairUs (artists/researchers Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle) traveled to Agbogbloshie in Ghana to investigate the issue of data breaches of private information.
The result of their research is Forensic Fantasies, a trilogy of artworks that use data recovered from hard-drives dumped in Agbogbloshie to answer the question: What happens to our data when we send a computer, an hard disk or any kind of other storage device to the garbage?
Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #2 Identity Theft, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma
The first chapter in the series, Not a Blackmail examines the possibility to identify the prior owner of a hard-drive and extort money from them (with emphasis on the word “possibility” they didn’t actually try and ransom the owner!) The second work, Identity Theft, focuses on the fraudulent online profiles created for romance scams. Finally, Found Footage Stalkers uses images retrieved from one of the hard-drives to create photo albums, as a direct reference to the traditional practice of using found footage to create new artworks.
There’s something very disturbing in Forensic Fantasies. The trilogy not only connects us with the after-life of our electronics but it also makes palpable a series of dangers that would otherwise appears far-fetched and abstract to most of us.
KairUs‘s work focuses on human computer and computer-mediated human-human interaction. Since 2010 they have investigated the issue of Internet fraud and online scams. Both of them are currently holding an Assistant Professor position at Woosong University in South Korea where they are also doing research on the vulnerabilities of Internet of Things and Smart Cities.
KairUs have an exhibition right now at Aksioma, everyone’s favourite cultural venue in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The show focuses on the Forensic Fantasies Trilogy but i’d recommend you check out the fascinating talk the duo gave at Aksioma a couple of weeks ago because it not only sums up and comment on the trilogy but also presents the artists’ ongoing research into the weaknesses and pitfalls of the much-hype Internet of Things.
Hi Andreas and Linda! Your work Forensic Fantasies – #1: Not a Blackmail examines the possibility to blackmail the prior owner of a hard-drive. Why did you not send the hard drive back to its owner? What does the letter to the owner say?
A primary motivation to visit Agbogbloshie in the first place was to answer the questions; if it is possible to use or abuse the data on a hard-drive recovered from an e-waste dump. As we had read cases about US senators being blackmailed, company secrets exposed and recovered hard-drives from US military contractors found amongst e-waste in West Africa, we were curious if our e-waste is really such a data breach as these reports were conveying. For us, the artwork ‘Not a Blackmail’ from the ‘Forensic Fantasies’ trilogy is a proof of concept that it is possible to recover data from a hard-drive and with the help of social media profiles track current contact information of the former owner, so that this person can be contacted and then potentially blackmailed. Of course our intention was not to blackmail this person, which is made clear in the title of the artwork (‘Not a Blackmail’).
The whole Forensic Fantasies series is also about the idea of finding something sensitive or valuable on the hard-drives, and until one recovers the data there is always a chance, a fantasy of recollecting something important or of value, even scandalous. Much of the data we recovered and processed would be more or less boring for most of us in an other context, on the other hand the content of a hard-drive might still feel very personal and exposing for its former owner, so how important is it to expose this person? The name of the former owner is exposed through the artwork, but it is still common enough, avoiding a direct link to an individual. Keeping this in mind we have been thinking of ways to deliver the data back to the former owner in a way or another. Just sending the package might evoke a reaction to ignore us, so we are still waiting for opportunities to do it in a more personal way. As the artwork is still exhibited in this speculative format, we also have to think how it will be affected, how the art work changes if we actually manage to deliver the data to the owner.
The letter to the owner basically covers the story how we got our hands on his data, that we found personal and sensitive data on it that a criminal might use against him and that we decided to return the hard-drive to him.
Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma
Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma
Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma
One of the issues the trilogy revealed is the peril of not cleaning up or destroying hard drive before getting rid of it. How easy or difficult is it to do so exactly?
To physically destroy a hard-drive is the most secure way of getting rid of the data. There are hard-drive shredders or just drilling holes in the hard-drive is a common practice of companies, that are more aware of leaking data and want to prevent data breaches. One can also open the hard-drive and scratch the disc that contains data.
Of course if you ever saved anything in the cloud your data will be saved on hard-drives somewhere else, often copied on several locations. You will never have access to destroy these hard-drives, so we can only trust that companies have proper workflows of re-using and destroying hard-drives (this aspect also made us more aware of the materiality of the cloud).
Deleting data and emptying the virtual trash bin still allows data recovery. As long as data has not been overwritten by new data at least one time it is quite easy to recover, though recovered data is not organized which makes it more difficult to process. If a hard-drive is meant for re-use experts recommend to overwrite the data several times.
Data forensics have been able to recover data or parts of data in cases that seemed impossible such as broken hard-drives or discs destroyed by water. Yet this type of data rescue is time-consuming, needs special equipment and is expensive, whereas we were more interested in how easy it is to recover data and if data mining with very simple tools is possible at an e-waste dump.
Acquiring hard drives on the e-waste dump. Photo: Kairus.org
Could you tell us about people you met in Ghana who are also very concerned about the topics you are investigating?
What took us to Ghana in the first place is that we have been investigating internet fraud for a longer time in several of our artworks. West Africa is known for certain types of scams, but internet fraud, internet crime and scams in general are a global phenomena. People in Ghana are in general worried how trustworthy they are perceived online. Due to this bad reputation of a few scammers, service providers use the easiest way of dealing with this issue, blocking the IP-range of a whole country to access their webpage. Hence the general population is punished with quite insufficient means because with a bit of advanced knowledge this will not stop a scammer. We talked about this with several people we meet and also internet scam issues are discussed through popular culture, mainly so-called Nollywood films, that are mostly Nigerian and Ghanaian low budget films.
This perspective we try to bring forth in the second part of the trilogy ‘ID theft’ by compiling a found footage film from several Nollywood films dealing with this issue. These films are distributed as DVD’s everywhere in Ghana and are considered a very important channel for West Africans to reflect upon their own culture. Through the films it was also easier for us to discuss these issues with people we met, though in Ghana the scams were often blamed to be done by Nigerians living in Ghana. At the e-waste dump no questions were asked what we want to do with the hard-drives. As far as we talked with the workers there, they salvage and sort valuable metals such as copper cables or computer parts with gold and other metals, processors, hard-drives, etc. These parts are then sold in bulk. Hard-drives are most probably bought in bulk by data rescue companies for their spare parts. In general, mining data from the e-waste dump is probably very marginal and unknown by the general public in Ghana. A bigger concern is the illegal trade of e-waste from the US and Europe that ends up in West Africa.
The work involved discussions with other artists about the ethics of using this type of ‘stolen’ material. On the one hand, people have thrown it away so it’s fair game. On the other, personal data is very sensitive. So i’m..
Publisher Columbia University Press writes: Taxidermy, once the province of natural history and dedicated to the pursuit of lifelike realism, has recently resurfaced in the world of contemporary art, culture, and interior design. In Speculative Taxidermy, Giovanni Aloi offers a comprehensive mapping of the discourses and practices that have enabled the emergence of taxidermy in contemporary art. Drawing on the speculative turn in philosophy and recovering past alternative histories of art and materiality from a biopolitical perspective, Aloi theorizes speculative taxidermy: a powerful interface that unlocks new ethical and political opportunities in human-animal relationships and speaks to how animal representation conveys the urgency of addressing climate change, capitalist exploitation, and mass extinction.
A resolutely nonanthropocentric take on the materiality of one of the most controversial mediums in art, this approach relentlessly questions past and present ideas of human separation from the animal kingdom. It situates taxidermy as a powerful interface between humans and animals, rooted in a shared ontological and physical vulnerability.
Speculative Taxidermy looks beyond the postcolonial critique, the uncanny and the sensationalism of taxidermy to examine the resurgence of the practice in contemporary art.
The author calls “Speculative Taxidermy” an art practice that balances realism with abstraction, engages with current ethical and biopolitical concerns, re-calibrates our relationship with animals and destabilizes dominant anthropocentric modes of being and thinking.
The strongest quality of the book is the way it acknowledges that taxidermy, like any other cultural practice, operates nowadays within a context characterized by consumerism, globalization, resource depletion and environmental anxieties. The author also dives into the historical background from which speculative taxidermy (and ultimately own own relationship with animals) emerged: the rhetoric of natural history museums and the history of how nature has been staged, dissected and displayed in medieval bestiaries, cabinets of curiosities, dioramas and other historical tools for constructing concepts of nature.
Speculative Taxidermy is packed with thorough analysis of taxidermy artworks but also with fascinating anecdotes: Degas’s little dancer which shocked fin de siecle Parisians with her real hair, wax body and aura of “precocious depravity”, the hippopotamus that lived in the Boboli Gardens as pet of Grand Duke of Tuscany, Michelangelo gaining intimate knowledge of anatomy through his practice of dissecting bodies at the Santo Spirito hospital in Florence in the late 15th century, etc.
This is a solid, thoroughly researched volume for fastidious art critics who want to study taxidermy’s position within the context of the anthropocene. The author, however, relishes art speak and references to every single thinker of the 20th and 21st century you could think of: Donna Haraway (obviously!), Claude Lévi-Strauss, Susan Sontag, Slavoj Žižek, Michel Foucault (who’s actually the book’s main cicerone), etc. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book but i thought i’d warn you. If ever light and entertaining taxidermy is what you’re after, then you might want to have a look elsewhere: at Robert Marbury‘s Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How To Do It Yourself or maybe at Crap Taxidermy by Kat Su.
I’ll leave you with some of the creatures and scenes i discovered in the book:
The weird and wonderful hippopotamus at La Specola, Florence’s Museum of Zoology and Natural History. It given to the Cosimo III de’ Medici in the second half of the 17th century. Photo
Finishing touches applied to a diorama in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Named for Carl Akeley, the explorer who designed all the displays, the hall presents several animals that Akeley had killed. Photo taken in 1936
The show draws parallels between the nineteenth century pioneers of photography who experimented with the technological and visual potential of the medium and today’s artists who are following in their footsteps by inventing new ways to use the materiality and processes of photography.
Their haunting images were made by placing light-sensitive silver gelatin paper in a large analogue camera, resulting in direct and unique positive images. With exposure times sometimes longer than a minute and the help of electric drills to rattle the scenes, they create enigmatic images swirling whirlpools or produce a bright starry sky in their studio.
The combination of the qualities of the positive photographic paper and the impossibility to fully control the oddly staged happenings evokes 19th century’s attempts to photographically capture paranormal activities.
Activestills. Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel, edited by Vered Maimon, a Senior Lecturer in the Art History Department at Tel Aviv University, and by Shiraz Grinbaum, a curator and photo editor for the Activestills Collective and researcher at Tel Aviv University.
Publisher Pluto Press writes: In 2005, a group of photographers took a stand alongside the people of the small town of Bil’in, and documented their fight to stop the Israeli government building the infamous West Bank Barrier. Inspired by what they had seen in Bil’in, the group went on to form Activestills, a collective whose work has become vital in documenting the struggle against Israeli occupation and everyday life in extraordinary situations.
Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel examines the collective’s archive and activity from historical, theoretical, critical, and personal perspectives. It is the result of an in-depth dialogue among members of the collective and activists, journalists, intellectuals, and academics, and stands as the definitive study of the collective’s work.
Combining striking full-colour photographs with essays and commentary, the book stands as both a major contribution to reportage on Israel/Palestine and a unique collection of visual art.
Children sit amidst their belongings after a demolition in al-Araqib village in the south of present-day Israel, October 2009. Credit: Activestills.org
African asylum seekers and their supporters gather in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv, December 2013. Credit: Activestills.org
Demonstrators stage a solidarity action with Khader Adnan, who embarked on a lengthy hunger strike to protest his detention by Israel without charge or trial, in the West Bank village of Bilin, February 2012. Credit: Activestills.org
Activestills is a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international photographers who use their camera as a tool for social and political change. Unlike most photo reporters, the members of Activestills don’t see themselves as impartial and external witnesses but as part and parcel of the events they document. They don’t see their subjects as victims either, but as political agents who play an important role in the resistance against all forms of oppression.
Activestills dedicates an important portion of its coverage to the Israeli occupation and its two corollaries: the resistance against it and the violations of human rights carried out in broad day light. But the group also looks at injustices that happen within Israel: LGBTQ campaigns for equality, continuous discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, migration and asylum seekers, resistance against privatization of natural resources, the ultra-Orthodox community’s resistance to compulsory military enlistment, etc.
They see connections and parallels between theses struggles.
The Halif family site near an improvised dinner table set near their demolished house in Givat Amal neighbourhood, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2014. Two days passed since the third eviction of families in the neighbourhood which left 20 residents homeless without proper compensation or alternative housing solution. Credit: Activestills.org
Activestills street exhibition, Bil’in, West Bank, 2007. Credit: Activestills.org
Another important focus of Activestills is that that they want their images and the social issues they address to be visible to everyone. The group not only collaborates with independent media but they also set up street exhibitions in the very spaces where the images have been taken, making them closer to an audience of people who are directly affected by the situations documented. The street shows also find their way to Israel. Although the audience there might sometimes be less willing to engage with some of the struggles that the photos uncover.
I’ve been admiring the work of the photo collective for years. Activestills. Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel is a relentlessly interesting book that analyses the group’s practices of intervention and visualization of struggles and explores their unique identity within the field of photo reporting. As you can expect, the book is splendidly illustrated with images of the collective’s work but it also contains essays, conversations with and texts by activists and by photographers who further illuminate and contextualize the work of Activestills, the way it challenges paradigms of news consumption and embeds solidarity into each of its actions.
A protester during confrontations with Israeli forces north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, near the Beit El settlement, November 2015. Credit: Activestills.org
Palestinian farmer and activist Muhammad Amira climbs a ladder next to the separation wall to watch over Israeli soldiers arriving to open the agricultural gate in his village, Ni’lin, in the West Bank. After the building of the wall in Ni’lin, many farmers were separated from their agricultural land. In order to work on their land, they must apply for wall-crossing permits from the Israeli army. Credit: Activestills.org
Residents of the ‘unrecognized’ village of Al-Araqib hold Activestills photos documenting their struggle during a protest against the demolition of their homes, 2010. Israeli authorities have since demolished the village over 100 times. Credit: Activestills.org
In the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, Israeli soldiers arrest Nariman Tamimi, a photographer herself, as her 8-year-old daughter, Ahed, tries to free her during a protest against the occupation in August 2012. Credit: Activestills.org
If you happen to be in Belgium this week, don’t miss Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance, a show at BOZAR which makes it clear that technology has left us with nowhere to hide. We knew that already of course. Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations have pulverized any dream of internet as a space for free and uninhibited exchanges.
Watching You Watching Me explores how artists are responding to the world’s transformation into a vast tech-mediated panopticon. Some of the artists reveal the efforts deployed by governments and corporations to monitor our online thoughts and ideas, with no concern for our privacy and freedom of expression. Others make visible the new forms digital self-surveillance and ‘virtual vigilantism’ facilitated by social media and access to webcams across the world.
I feel like i’ve blogged about surveillance/sousveillance hundreds of times already but i was impressed with this show, it is solid, enlightening and should appeal to the wise and the uninformed alike. It closes on Sunday so be quick and visit it if you’re in the area. Here’s a quick overview of the works on show (i only skipped the ones i wrote about in the past):
Julian Roeder, Thermal Imaging Camera, 2012. A portable, long-distance infrared thermal imaging surveillance system used by a Bulgarian Frontex unit
Julian Roeder, Monitoring Zeppelin, 2013. Near Toulon, southern France.
A Wescam MX 15 surveillance camera operator inside a monitoring zeppelin. This photograph was taken during an initial testing phase of a EUROSUR research project aimed to improve control of illegal immigration in the Mediterranean
Julian Roeder, Frequency-Modulated Continuous-Wave Radar and High-Performance Wescam MX 15, near Toulon, southern France. A frequency-modulated continuous-wave radar—used for the detection of small wooden boats—and a high-performance Wescam MX 15 surveillance camera are mounted on a dirigible
Julian Roeder, Polish Frontex Officer, 2012. A Polish Frontex border patrol officer stands with an ICS30 thermal imaging reconnaissance camera near the border between Greece and Turkey. Evros region, northern Greece
Julian Roeder, Border Situation, 2012. Border patrol police monitor the external border of Greece
Julian Roeder’s Mission and Task series exposes the high-tech surveillance apparatus deployed by Europe along its external borders. Thermo-cameras, surveillance drones, satellite technology, radar equipment for hunting down fleeing refugees and migrants add a digital and unforgiving layer to the old barbed wire, walls and fences.
These deterrents and the way they function elude visual representation.
“With my work, I intend to portray a border security system consisting of surveillance infrastructure that ensures the relative affluence of life in Europe,”
Roeder wrote. “I know of many works dedicated to representing the fate of migrants. I wanted, however, to create works that do not focus on “the other” itself, but on the systems and mechanisms used to construct and control “the other.”
In making these images, I was particularly dedicated to showing how technologization turns the handling of migrants into an abstraction. The focal point is a technology that records humans as data, currents, points of light, and as signals—not as individuals. Through an excessive enhancement of the photographic aesthetic, this technology can become a tool and symbol for alienation instead of a responsible means of dealing with people.”
Edu Bayer, Former Gadhafi Intelligence Facilities in Tripoli, Libya. Interior of the main center of Internet Surveillance and Internal Security of the former Gadaffi regime. Computers, files, and electronic devices abandoned in a 6 floor building. August, 2011
Edu Bayer, A room in Libya’s internet surveillance center, Tripoli, Libya, August 30, 2011
The internet surveillance center in Tripoli was a six-story building where the government monitored citizens’ movements and correspondence. After the 2011 civil war, the repressive machine was left empty, documents were shredded and the internet traffic monitoring and filtering equipment was abandoned.
Simon Menner spent two years exploring the archives of the Stasi (East Germany’s Ministry for State Security.) Almost 300,000 people worked for the secret police, per capita far more than were employed by the CIA or the KGB.
After the downfall of the GDR, the Stasi’s operations were laid open to the public and reviewed by the StaSi Records Agency, an office set up specially for this purpose.
The archive images that Menner selected are exhibited un-retouched. They often look funny to the modern eye but the reality they depict is dark: these are real photos of real people who were trained to systematically pry and report on their neighbors and family members. What makes these images unique is that, as Menner explained “the public has very limited access to pictures showing the act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant. We rarely get to see what Big Brother sees”.
As i mentioned on Monday, a fabulously perceptive and captivating exhibition titled Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald / Disappearing Legacies: The World as a Forest opened at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg back in November. The show follows on the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist who, over 150 years ago, (co-)formulated the principle of species evolution during research trips to South America and Southeast Asia. 150 years is not a very long time. Yet, if Wallace were to return to these tropical habitats, chances are that he would not recognized them. The rainforests have been destroyed at a very rapid pace by heavy logging, agricultural clearance and urbanisation. Large numbers of species have been driven to extinction in the process. Would Wallace still be able to develop the theory of evolution through natural selection in this context?
Exhibition view (entry lithograph of Amazonia.) Photo: ReassemblingNature.org, Michael Pfisterer
Disappearing Legacies: The World as a Forest gathers contemporary artworks as well as zoological and botanical objects to investigate the changes in the tropical regions that Wallace once traveled and to shed light on the ecological issues faced by today’s fauna and flora of Amazon, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
The show also interrogates our traditional concept of nature: how can it be mediated and maintained in a context characterized by extinction, deforestation and climate change?
The artworks are exhibited inside the main exhibition space of the museum and not in a dedicated, white space gallery. The curatorial decision means that families who enter the space to see taxidermied bears and exotic flowers are confronted with challenging questions and artifacts they might not otherwise get a chance to explore in such details. It might look like an unusual curating choice to some but i thought it was a brilliant move as 1. I’m always in favour of broadening the audience of contemporary artworks 2. by installing the works in the middle of a traditional Museum of Natural History, the curators invite us to reflect on the role that such an institution should play in the age of the anthropocene and Sixth Mass Extinction. Is our knowledge about biology and evolution in need of an update?
Here’s a quick and very partial tour of the exhibition:
Shannon Lee Castleman, Tree Wounds, Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi, 2010-2011. Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald. Photo: UHH/CeNak, Reiss
I was very moved by the Tree Wound photographs that Shannon Lee Castleman took during a field trip to Muna Island in Indonesia.
While visiting the island, the artist noticed enormous wounds on many of the older teak trees in the conservation forest. These forests are older teak plantations that have been awarded “conservation” forest status—not because of bio-diversity (which was devastated by timber planting in the 19th and 20th centuries) but because former plantations maintain the water table for the island. Castleman was told that since felling teak in these forests is illegal, impoverished villagers who pass by large teak trees will give a tree one cut with an axe after another … until finally the tree falls or dies and no-one is to blame.
The portraits of these wounded trees recount, on a micro-scale, the tragedy of deforestation and illegal logging taking place all over the world.
The Chinese ‘Chao Gong’ beats to the rhythm of species extinction, estimated by biologist E.O. Wilson to be about 27,000 losses every year, or once every 19 minutes. Even though this is a conservative estimate, it is still much higher than the average background rate (the non-anthropogenically influenced extinction rates) of plant, animal and insect species extinction.
Should biologists declare a new species extinct while the Extinction Gong is active it will receive an update via a 3g link and perform a special ceremony: four strikes in quick succession alongside a text-to-speech utterance of the Latin Name of the species lost, resonating through the gong.
The front side of the Chinese ‘Chao Gong’ is painted with the Extinction Symbol, the official mark of the Sixth Mass Extinction. The back, however, reveals the engineering of the artwork.
“This diametric expresses a brutal and contradicting irony – while advances in science and technology augment the devastating impact of human endeavours over wild habitats, so are they our best means of studying and understanding it.”
I found the work extremely moving. It gives presence and dignity to insects, plants and animals who disappear quietly while most of us remain deaf and indifferent to the loss of biodiversity.
Over the past few years, Robert Zhao Renhui has been documenting the ways in which the human species is altering other life forms. Directly or indirectly. His photographic works show animals, insects and plants that had to evolve in order to cope with the pressures of a fast changing world or as the direct result of human intervention and for purposes ranging from scientific research to the desire for ornamentation.
For the exhibition in Hamburg, the artist focused his research on insects. Over a single day, Zhao gathered insect carcasses from windows, insect..
Although Charles Darwin is usually the only name that springs to mind when mentioning the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace was actually a co-discoverer of the theory. Wallace developed some of his most important ideas about natural selection during research trips to South America and Southeast Asia.
Anthony Smith, Bronze statue of Alfred Russel Wallace. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2014. Courtesy Linnean Society London
150 years later, the tropical habitats that the British naturalist explored have been radically transformed. The rainforests have been ravaged, ruined and flattened to make space for monoculture and other human pursuits of profit.
If Wallace were to visit these rainforests today, would he still be able to formulate the principles of evolution by natural selection? Or has the biodiversity of those regions dropped so significantly that he would come back from his journey with little more than a few notebooks filled with drawings?
Both the premise and the works selected for the exhibition are worth a trip to Hamburg. I’ll come back with a full review of the show on Friday but in the meantime, i’d like to share a video i found so eye-opening and powerful that it deserves to be singled out in a post.
The video was produced by PetaBencana.id (an organization offering a free web-based platform that combines crowd-sourced reporting and government agency validations to visualize disasters in real time) for the Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest exhibition. It explains the devastating impact that palm tree monocultures in Indonesia are having on the local landscape as well as on the whole the Earth System and its climate. I thought i knew about the havoc that palm oil plantations are wreaking on the environment, i had no idea it was this bad (burning an area the size of my country in only 5 months!!):
Peat Fires & Palm Oil: An Introduction by PetaBencana.id - YouTube
Indonesia is the world’s biggest exporter of palm oil and its production, a highly lucrative one, is seen as essential to its economic growth. The oil is everywhere around us: in our soap, cereals, biodiesel, washing powder, instant noodles, lipstick, etc. And of course it’s a key ingredient in France’s favourite sugary spread.
The industry, however, is extremely damaging for the environment. Vast swathes of rainforest are destroyed to make space for the monocultures of oil palms, threatening biodiversity, destroying the habitat of endangered species (Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran elephants, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinoceroses, the orangutan, etc), pushing indigenous people off their lands and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. Indonesia is the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly due to the conversion of its forests and carbon-rich peatlands, a type of wetlands which are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth because they act as natural terrestrial carbon store and are thus essential in the fight against climate change.
Palm Oil plantation in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016
As for the images i’m using to illustrate the topic, they have been made by photographer Armin Linke, his colleague Giulia Bruno and exhibition curators Anna-Sophie Springer and Dr. Etienne Turpin. They traveled to Borneo, Java and Sumatra, met with local residents, plantation workers, smallholders, environmentalists, government officials and scientists to document the problem and reflect on the speed with which Indonesia is currently transforming into a palm-oil nation amid giant peat fires.
But as i wrote above: more soon…
Harvested fruits of palm oil in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016