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.
Adam Basanta, an artist, composer and performer of experimental music, likes to turn sound technologies into kinetic and sculptural installations. The way he handles sound objects can be fairly hostile, ironic or even poetical.
A Large Inscription, A Great Noise investigates notions of historical time and time-keeping, cycles of construction and destruction in an era of mass communication, automization through mechanical kineticism, and the modalities of its resulting trace.
In “A Large Inscription”, a microphone is slowly dragged over gravel; “an indispensable instrument of the modern demagogue is knocked over like an overrun statue,” writes the artist. That might explain why i found the sound produced so physical but also strangely satisfying.
“A Great Noise”, however, is more dramatic. A microphone encased in a 40kg cement block is quietly raised towards the roof, left to hover for a second and then it drops and slams against a large concrete base. Bits and pieces chipped off the block scatter around the space. The block slowly rises again and the process is repeated over and over again.
I caught up with the artist as he had just finished installing his work:
Hi Adam! The two works are in the same room. How do they connect or maybe disconnect? Are they meant to always work together?
While both works are independent pieces, they are interrelated and very much designed to be in dialogue. They both try to address the same set of questions, each in their own way: how do we conceive of and represent time, its passage, and its organization into a history? How does the application of technology – mechanical power, automatization, networked communication – shape this understanding and the world around us?
In A Large Inscription, time is envisioned as circular and infinite. A trace never truly begins or ends, it just shifts forward, slowly displacing whatever is in its path. Historical moments (the microphone placement alludes to the toppled statue of a dictator) while cathartic, are repeated, stuck in a loop. The world keeps on turning. On the other hand, A Great Noise divides time into distinct units: the 40kg block of cement (in which a microphone is embedded) is pulled up every 5 minutes, and then dropped to the ground from a height of ~1.5 to 2m. Time is divided into measured intervals, but also moves forward as we witness cause and effect, the block slowly breaking after repeated impacts as days and weeks pass by.
This conceptual dialogue is mirrored sonically, with one continuous layer slowly evolving texturally, occasionally punctuated by distinct, violent events.
What do you mean when you write the work investigates the “cycles of construction and destruction in an era of mass communication”?
I feel like we have a very confused relationship to time and temporality in the present moment. On the one hand, we have an immense degree of access to the past, where we can google an event that occurred yesterday or 1500 years ago with the same ease. History is flattened, and exists firmly in the present as an artifact of our time. On the other hand, our notions of the future are dominated by dystopic visions of impending ecological collapse and the autocratic techno-state. The present is changing at a breakneck speed, a speed we are able to follow using our various technological devices and platforms, but somehow this overload of information gives a sensation of stasis and déjà vu. A country is destroyed, a forest is chopped down, a building is torn down for new construction; is any of this new or have I already read about it? Are we progressing or regressing, or staying in the exact same place we’ve always been? There is a sense of malaise in how we relate to time, and while the works don’t address these issues explicitly, as allegorical re-interpretions of the myth of Sisyphus, they speak to this phenomena.
There’s some suspense in A Great Noise, a tension that’s only briefly released when the block finally hits the base. What determines the speed of the movements? is it random? Regular? Does it respond to specific rules?
I’m told that watching this work is a very tense experience! The pulling up of the block takes approximately 2 minutes. It is intentionally slow but the speed also transmits the sense of mechanical and kinetic power at hand. The block is pulled up to a variable height between 1.5-2m above the ground. It is then held in place for between 10-30 seconds before the load is released and drops to the ground by the force of gravity. So even if you’ve seen the block drop, there is always a sense of danger about it as it pulls higher or lower, anticipation to see if it drops right away or is left suspended for a longer interval, will a piece of the block break off, etc. Another layer of indeterminacy is in the manner in which the blocks break over time: as pieces chip off, the balance of the block changes, and as the block hits the cement differently, we can attend to sonic variations. Once a cement block breaks entirely – this takes about 2 to 3 weeks – it is replaced by a new cast cement block, and the process repeats.
I associate your practice with elegant electronic devices, not with rough material like gravel and concrete. What is the appeal of gravel and concrete to you?
Well, I suppose all work exists on a spectrum! The last piece I made, All We’d Ever Need Is One Another, was very much about digital and computational labour (most of which occurs inside a computer), so it felt right to respond with this new project and make something very physical, heavy, and rough.
But the fascination with gravel and concrete specifically is in some ways quite personal. I live in Montreal, a city which..
The first few words i read on the leaflet of the Share Festival, the annual event of contemporary tech art and science in Turin, sum up so poetically the way i see the city:
Share Festival XIV, GHOSTS, is worldly by being otherwordly, is Turinese by being international, touches the heart of the matter by embracing the skin, is futuristic by being historical, is visible through the invisible, spoken through the unspeakable and alive through the spirits of the dead.
Well, that certainly beats the very cheesy title i had originally selected for my review of the festival exhibition (The Share festival. Or how to put spirits into the spirit of innovation)!
While Turin is famous -at least in Italy- for its innovations and manufacturing energy, it is also said to be the only city that is part of both the triangle of White Magic and the triangle of the Black Magic. This year the Share Festival played with this enigmatic identity and chose Ghosts as its main theme.
The works exhibited over the course of a long weekend in Turin called forth all the Ghosts of technologies and human memories.
There were 6 works in the show, each of them shortlisted for the Share Prize, each radically different from the others. Taken together though these artworks offered a compact, coherent and enchanting perspective on a technologically-mediated world in which the rational constantly contends with the paranormal and the superstitious.
Below are the 4 works i found most fascinating:
Starting with the ghost of a bird hunted to extinction….
The Huia is an extinct species of wattle bird from New Zealand. The male and the female had differently shaped bills. They worked together to feed on wood-burrowing larvae, the male chiseling the bark from trees, while the female removed exposed grubs with her long, curved beak. The arrival of European settlers led to the loss of their habitat through deforestation, the introduction of new predators and the mass killing of the birds in 1901 when their feathers sparked a fashion craze on the old continent. The last officially recorded Huia was seen in 1907.
There is no direct recording of their songs. However, in 1949, a farmer named Robert Batley asked Henare Hāmana, a local Māori who used to lure huia by imitating their call, to accompany him to Wellington and record his imitation of the bird on a disc.
She first asked Pascal Harris in Dunedin, New Zealand, to play on the piano the four known Western musical notations of the song of the Huia. The sounds were then inscribed onto phonograp wax cylinder by Graham McDonald of the National Film and Sound Archives in Canberra. The artist chose the piano because it was a musical instrument found in most domestic houses in colonial New Zealand and the wax cylinders because they were the only commercially available sound recording technology available while the Huia was still alive. During the exhibitions of the work, the sounds are played on an Edison Gem phonograph, launched on the market in 1899 for domestic use.
However, the wax cylinders are so fragile that each playback is a small erosion of the recording, suggesting that the bird will continue to escape from our understanding with each attempt to retain the memory of its existence.
It is hard not to see in this work an allusion to the 1,200 animal species which, scientists warn, “will almost certainly face extinction” without conservation intervention.
Casey Reas, The Untitled Film Stills. Image courtesy of the Share festival
Casey Reas, The Untitled Film Stills. Image courtesy of the Share festival
The artist reinserts a certain level of human agency and creative control into the mechanism by selecting the images GANs trains on. Instead of employing the technology to create realistic images, Reas thus deviates it from its main function, stretches GANs creative potential even further and explores its ability to produce uncanny images.
Each image in The Untitled Film Stills series appears grainy and a bit blurry, as if it were a frame from an imagined film that might have been rescued from the past.
Sophie Kahn, Machine for Suffering. Image courtesy of the Share festival
Sophie Kahn’s work explores how science and technology scrutinize and eventually misinterpret the human body.
The artist uses a laser scanner to captures performers reenacting poses from photos that were developed to diagnose and record hysteria in the 19th Century. Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot was then studying hysteria with the help of anatomical artist Paul Richer at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. Together, they elaborated charts and images documenting the physical poses they regarded as “typical” of the various phases of an attack of hysteria. Photography was their medium of choice, even though photos could obviously not capture the underlying psychological cause(s) of what ailed their patients. Interestingly, hysteria was a psychiatric diagnosis that, at the time, was applied largely to women. Just like today the adjective “hysterical” is almost consistently used to describe women who dare to express themselves with a bit of anger or passion.
Sophie Kahn, Machine for Suffering. Image courtesy of the Share festival
Similarly to what happened in the 19th Century with photography, the 3D technology Kahn is using today fails to adequately capture its human subjects. Since the scanners aren’t designed to handle movements, let alone emotions, they get confused by the ever-changing spatial coordinates and turn the female bodies into glitchy shells that the artist paints, sands, glues and props up with scaffolding.
Her Machines for Suffering look like bodies that had been broken down then hastily pieced back together.
According to the World Bank‘s latest estimates, the world generates (and often poorly manages) 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, 12 percent of it being plastic. A third of that plastic finds its way into fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans.
Plastic debris now aggregates in gigantic floating landfills in oceans and endangers wildlife. Turtles ingest plastic bags and balloons, tiny fragments carpet the sea bed while chemical additives used in plastics even ends up in birds’ eggs in High Arctic. We’ve all read about this kind of stories, just as we’ve heard about the small gestures we should adopt to curb plastic waste. Yet, the growth of the plastic tide looks unstoppable.
Swaantje Güntzel, Hotel Pool, Intervention, 2016. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe
Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Portrait. Photo by Scheibe & Güntzel
Swaantje Güntzel, an artist with a background in Anthropology, has long been investigating our conflicted relationship with waste. Her work forces us to confront the dramatic consequences that trash pollution is having all over the world, from our city streets to the wildlife living at the other end of the world. Using aesthetics, provocation and humour, she lays bare the interdependence between our daily consumer choices, tepid reactions to environmental urgencies and fragile ecosystems.
Her strategies to spur us into action are many. She exhibits porcelains, photos, embroideries and sculptures inside galleries of course. But she also goes into the streets and infuriates passersby with her public performances. Some of her interventions involve the conspicuous “relocation” in touristic areas and fjords of trash dumped by absent-minded citizens. Others see her placing underneath public park benches sound devices playing a series of sounds generated by humans underwater, the kind of noises we never talk about but that nevertheless deeply disturbs wildlife swimming and living in the North and Baltic Sea, Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.
Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe
Many of her works involve collaborations. Often with artist Jan Philip Scheibe but also with activists, researchers or even employees in a recycling plant. She lent some of her ideas and talent to environmental organizations such as Ocean Now in order to create campaigns that show her own face (and even, in the last iteration of the campaign, the faces of famous German public figures) covered in microplastics collected on beaches across the world. She also regularly collaborates with scientists in order to ground her artworks in robust facts or get help gathering plastic toys trapped inside the digestive system of sea birds. Last year, she even spent a couple of weeks on the huge scrapyard near Stuttgart to understand the whole process that keeps raw materials inside a closed recycling loop.
Ocean Now is currently using Swaantje Güntzel’s artwork “Microplastics II” for its In Your Face project, part of their campaign “Microplastics in Cosmetics and Cleaning Products”. Photo by Helen Schroeter
I discovered her practice through the artworks series that explores the plastic invasion of our daily lives and oceans but our online discussions also brought us to discuss excavator choreographies on scrapyards and how to stay sane when the world around you is sinking under piles of garbage.
Hi Swaantje! I was very moved by PLASTISPHERE/Promenade Thessaloniki when I first read about it. It makes visible, in the most shocking way, how careless we are in our daily life when it comes to plastic trash, even when we are in the proximity of the sea or of a park. And even though we’re all aware of the problem by now. How did passersby react to your gestures of throwing plastic back into the urban environment? Did they get angry at you?
What you see in the video is not the whole truth because it was impossible to cover every reaction. In performance art you have to decide whether you focus on the performance or on the documentation because as soon as people see there’s someone filming or taking pictures around, they immediately think this is not serious and will refrain from intervening. We thus had to ask the filmmaker to stay away and try to be invisible as much as he could. Several moments in the performance were even stronger than the ones you can see in the video. For example, when we started the performance, after some 10 meters as I had just begun to throw out the garbage, a guy on a bike stopped and spat at me. His spit was all over my dress. He didn’t even ask what was going on. Further on, we had people yelling and shouting at us. The old woman in the video wasn’t just slapping me, she was hitting me hard. And she wasn’t the only one. There’s also this guy at the end of the video whom we later discovered was part of far right group The Golden Dawn. If it hadn’t been for the curator who was running behind and trying to explain what we were doing, I think he would have beaten us up.
Collecting garbage at Galerius Palace Thessaloniki, 2016. Photo by Giorgos Kogias
Did people get angry like this everywhere you presented the performance?
Yes, people react that way pretty much everywhere we go.
Lately, I’ve been wondering why people get so worked up. They don’t get angry when they see people dropping garbage or when they see trash in the street. They only get so worked up when they see somebody doing it in such a condensed and obvious way. I find it a bit hypocritical.
The funny thing is that I’m only relocating that garbage. We always start by picking up the trash we find laying around the city. In the case of Thessaloniki, we picked it up at a nearby archaeological site. The site is inside the pedestrian area. You can get a ticket, enter and visit the site. Yet, people who walk by still throw their wrappings onto the archaeological site.
In the first performance, I was relocating the actual garbage within the site, picking it up in one place and throwing it in another. After that, we took that garbage and moved it three blocks away, on the promenade. Only this time, we were throwing the garbage while riding some kind of bike for tourists.
I think that the outraged reaction has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t like to be confronted with garbage so blatantly. In a way, they know it’s theirs and it’s their responsibility. No matter where you are and who you ask, people seem to believe that garbage in public space is not their fault, that it’s the others who are to blame for its presence.
Public space is a collective space. We should all be responsible for it. Unfortunately, people just don’t want to take responsibility, neither in a personal sense nor in a collective sense. A performance in which we bring the garbage back to them is like a knock on their doors.
On a more abstract level, it has a lot to do with the walls we create around consumerism and in a broader sense around capitalism. When you start to talk about waste and plastic pollution, you have to question your way of life, the whole system of..
I missed the latest edition of the GAMERZ festival, the one and only media art event that 1. introduces me to at least half a dozen exciting artists i had never heard about before and 2. excites me so much that i eagerly spend 9 hours on 3 super slow trains in order to get there. “There” being Aix-en-Provence and Aix is never a bad idea in November.
The programme of the last festival was short but it featured a few artworks that looked worth an article on the blog. Julien Clauss had a particularly fascinating installation that creates invisible geometries and architectures with the help of little more than 30 good old radios and FM radio transmitters.
The artist turned one of the exhibition spaces of the spectacular Fondation Vasarely into a giant jamming room, a Salle de brouillage in french. He placed 30 FM radio transmitters on the walls. They are made of brass plate circuits and each of them is connected to an antenna, a power supply and audio players via a network of cables that crisscross the walls of the room. Each transmitter is tuned to a different frequency along the FM broadcast band (from 87 to 108 MHz), covering the entire FM band.
Visitors could pick up one of the portable radio receivers available, move along the space, play with the frequencies, scan the FM spectrum and uncover the invisible waves that occupy the space. By playing with the low tech devices, visitors could thus explore an invisible architecture shaped by the world of electromagnetic fields.
I got in touch with Julien Clauss who, between a residency in Chile and the installation of a new sound work in Montreuil (east of Paris), found a moment to answer my questions:
Hi Julien! Salle de Brouillage was installed at the Fondation Vasarely for the GAMERZ festival, a space that might have its challenges for a sound artist but that remains incredibly inspiring. Is the way you are going to install the work be influenced by the location?
The geometry of the room in which Salle de Brouillage is installed instructs the spatial deployment of the work, the pattern of the transmitter is repeated throughout the room by strictly following the architecture of the place.
Salle de brouillage is installed in relation to the architecture and the electromagnetic field of the site. The transmitters and copper cables follow the contours of the exhibition room like a tapestry and play with the spatial dynamics of the room. In a less visible manner, the radio emissions of the 30 transmitters meet the ambient electromagnetic field, a joint result of the emissions of the local FM stations, the filtering of the walls and the radiation of the electrical installations inside the building. The electromagnetic field in Salle de brouillage depends on the FM emissions specific to the installation as much as on the radio environment around and inside the building.
I like that you’re using portable radios. Why did you want to use devices that might look old-fashioned in today’s world of digital everything?
The first wireless transmission experiments date back to 1900, which makes radio the oldest of the “new media”. This is not the vintage aspect of the radio that interests me but the spatial and plastic dimensions of the media. I want to bring to the same level the structure of the media, its technology, the implicit hierarchical structures of the forms of networks as well as the sociability that these structures generate. Radio is a mundane object that makes it possible to get in touch with an invisible dimension of our environment which realizes a complex physical and geo-strategic space.
How did you select the sounds that visitors discover while navigating the space? Are they found materials?
Two stations play found materials: number stations (sequence of coded numbers emitted in short waves and addressed to intelligence officers operating in foreign countries) and natural radio (solar radiation, variations in the Earth’s magnetic field, etc); the other 28 stations broadcast sounds I made in reference to the sonic universe of radio: filtered noise, pure frequencies, shortwaves, ambient music, readings from concerts performed together with Emma Loriaut and Jean-François Blanquet.
How does the sound emitted by the radio sets evolve? is it just a question of turning the buttons on the devices or do the movements of the visitors influence the sound in the room?
The concentration of the emitters inside the same space produces mutual jamming. The field generated by the emissions in the room is an entanglement of chaotic waves. It is necessary to move around to receive the stations, some pop up very locally on an unstable portion of the frequency range, others in several places across the room.
We, humans and connected objects alike, are producing data so rapidly that storage infrastructures can’t keep up and that some engineers are now looking at the potentials of nature’s most ancient way of preserving information: DNA. DNA digital data storage, the process of encoding and decoding binary data to and from synthesized DNA strands, holds the promise of putting huge amounts of information into tiny molecules. One can see the appeal: DNA is fairly easy to replicate, stable over millennia, far less resource-hungry (or so it seems) than traditional data centers and the technique of storage is getting increasingly cheaper.
Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere
Artist Margherita Pevere has also been experimenting with DNA storage. Her motivations, however, are less utilitarian and more poetical. But they are no less thought-provoking and exciting. One of her ongoing research projects, Semina Aeternitatis, uses DNA storage technique to archive a woman’s intimate experience from her youth into foreign life. Throughout the whole developing and exhibiting process, the artwork explores a series of questions related to wider issues of life, anthropocentrism and ecological crisis:
Can a living body carry the nostalgia of another living body? If you inscribe a human being’s childhood memory onto foreign DNA, will the resulting hybrid body help us understand the increasingly strained relationships between humans and the world they are only a small part of? Will the experiment give us a different, perhaps more compassionate, perspective on other forms of life, big or small, and on the ecological threats they are exposed to?
Pevere collaborated with bioscientist Mirela Alistar and the IEGT (the Institute of Experimental Gene Therapy and Cancer Research at University Rostock in Germany) to convert into genetic code a childhood memory of a woman who chose to remain anonymous. The genetic code was further synthesized into a plasmid which was then inserted into bacterial cells. The bacteria thus store the woman’s transient memory in their own bacterial body. Colonies of bacteria were then grown and cultured to create a large biofilm which, even after it had been sterilized, retains that childhood memory.
What drew me to the project is not just its ambition of keeping a personal recollection into DNA for a seemingly infinite amount of time, it’s also the aspect of the biofilm. With its flesh tones, wet and viscous surface, it evokes skin and other body matter. It’s disturbing, strangely enticing and makes it impossible to reduce the project to a purely artistic speculation.
Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere
Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere
Margherita Pevere is an artist and researcher whose practice combines scientific protocols and DIY inquiry with aesthetics and a rigorous questioning of the methods and materials she engages with. Semina Aeternitatis is part of her practice-based PhD research at Aalto University, Helsinki. The reason why i asked her to talk to us about her project is that it is part of Experiment Zukunft. This very interesting-looking exhibition, curated by Susanne Jaschko, brings artists, scientists, students and citizens together to imagine probable, possible and fictional futures.
Margherita was kind enough to find a moment to answer my many questions about the work:
Hi Margherita! You started the project Semina Aeternitatis in 2015. Is it an entirely new version you are showing at Experiment Zukunft? How does it build upon or simply differ from the earlier version?
The project has had a long process and the art piece exhibited in Experiment Zukunft evolved from the initial idea. The project started in 2015 with a performances series where I interviewed strangers about the memories they would like to preserve for eternity, with the aim to store such memories on bacterial DNA. The initial idea was to make a series of visual works made of microbial biofilm, but during the process the need for a different embodiment emerged. Hybridity is crucial in my practice and it is interwoven with a visceral fascination for anatomy and biological matter. I wanted to create a hybrid creature that could entwine human memories with bacterial inheritance. The piece called for more liveliness and performativity.
For Experiment Zukunft, I interviewed a lady from Rostock who shared with me a crucial childhood episode which had to do with a horse – I will tell you more about this later. The horse unexpectedly links the woman’s experience with my own. I collaborated with Dr. Mirela Alistar and the Institute of Experimental Gene Therapy and Cancer Research (IEGT). Dr Alistar developed an algorithm to translate the story of the lady’s memory into a DNA sequence. The latter was manufactured as a plasmid, a circular DNA molecule. At IEGT laboratory, we run all protocols to eventually introduce the plasmid by electroporation into the cells of biofilm-producing Komagataeibacter rhaeticus bacteria. The bacteria is now carrying the memory story in their body.
Other artists have worked with DNA as a storage medium, think of the pioneering Microvenus by Joe Davis, or the recent Mezzanine release by Massive Attack. Semina Aeternitatis tackles the friction that arises from our understanding of DNA as a stable molecule, the potential to use this feature for long-term data storage, and the inherent process of becoming we – organic as well inorganic entities – are part of. On the one hand, there is an interplay of timescales I find artistically fertile. On the other hand, such friction may reveal politics and poetics of biological matter in post-human times.
Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere
I remember hearing Prof Nick Goldman talking about his pioneering work on DNA data storage a few years ago. At the time, the experiment was very costly and looked a bit outlandish. How affordable would DNA data storage be nowadays? As far you know, is this a form of data storage we could consider since the way we store our data nowadays is so energy-hungry?
DNA data storage is still considered a promising technology, although it is far from being error-free and recent research focuses on making it more reliable. However, I would point at an inherent contradiction I see in the narrative of many technologies that are considered “environmentally promising”.
Let’s agree DNA data storage will be more compact and efficient than hard drives. However, it does still require digital interface and the production of DNA still has to be optimised from an environmental point of view. My point here is that it can be more efficient, but it does not affect the system. We live in a system that is data based, where someone sells a huge lie called “the cloud” to someone who buys it, but the aspect I find most concerning is that such system is based on accumulation – one of the pillars of capitalism since its inception – and relies on fossil fuels.
Let’s assume technological development can help shrink our environmental footprint, but until the mantra of more consumption and production are valid without taking into consideration how process the fall-out … There’s a long way to go. Industry is currently about to launch foldable smart-phones, but there is still no solution to the immense dilemma of electrowaste. To be honest, and I am aware this might sound controversial, I wish there were dumps in every city, so people could see with their very eyes what technological materiality is about. I wish people could see black rivers in the parks, smell burning plastic and rotting metals, and relate this to the shiny surface of new laptops. Would that change anything?
To go back to your question, I can be fascinated by the storage and computing potential of molecules, but I think a more radical action is needed towards the environmental footprint of current technology.
I’m interested in the title of the project Semina Aeternitatis, which “is inspired by the human longing for eternity and the desire to permanently preserve memories and information.” In Latin, the title means “Seeds of eternity”. Which made me think about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and how it also carried this mission of eternal preservation. The project however seems to be threatened by climate change. Do you feel that this gives a new dimension to the work? At least to the way it can be interpreted since our ambitions of achieving eternity seem less and less credible and valid in these unstable times?
You to raise a relevant point here. I should mention first that I have been studying how humans impact the biosphere, including climate change, for 15 years. This has influenced both my own Weltanschauung as well as my work. We also should not forget that climate change has been out there for almost three decades, although its soaring urgency reached the news only in recent times. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 at what used to be considered a very stable spot, but, only a decade later, unforeseen permafrost melting challenges its stability.
Semina Aeternitaits means both “seeds of eternitiy” and “people of eternity”. This ambiguity addresses both the desire for permanence as well as anthropocentrism of Western culture: I was interested in understanding what link there may be between anthropocentrism, the Christian promise of afterlife, and the process of becoming. In the early phase of the research I considered different manifestations of the desire for permanence. I had long conversation with conservators of audio-visual media, contemporary artworks and ancient documents. I also explored the different approach between myself, a frank atheist, and some dear friends who have faith. Another phenomena I looked at is how Europe is still elaborating the inheritance of the 20th Century and the Holocaust, which came with the promise “Nie wieder!” (ENG: Never again!). Today, the founding values of the society built upon such promise are collapsing before our very eyes.
Again, there is an interplay of temporalities here. We can perceive better if we move away from our everyday temporality, whose fast pace is set by being ever-connected. Climate change introduces an event horizon in such interplay of temporalities, it somehow fractures it.
Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere
Could you tell us about your collaboration with Dr. Mirela Alistar? And did her own background and perspective influence or illuminate the final work and its development in any way?
I met Dr Alistar through the Berlin biohacking scene a few years ago and we have been in touch since then. Next to her academic research in computer science and microfluidics, she cultivates a vivid interest for biological systems and art and is one of the founder of the first citizen lab in Berlin, Top Lab. We have been discussing the project together since a couple of years and she officially joined it in 2018.
Her contribution has been multifaceted and deep. She did not only develop the algorithm to convert the text into DNA sequence, but we also shared important parts of the research and had real fun during the hands-on..
Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: A Chronology of Photography presents a fresh perspective on the medium by taking a purely chronological approach to its history, tracing the complex links between technological innovations, social change and artistic interventions. Structured around a central timeline that charts the development of photography from early experiments with optics right up to the present-day explosion of digital media, it features sumptuous reproductions of key photographs, together with commentaries and contextual information about the social, political and cultural events of the period in which they were taken. Special features highlight important themes and influential practitioners, while technical sections explain how the development of new camera technology has affected the practice of photography.
I’ve reviewed a number of publications and exhibitions about photography: its history, some of its main genres and challenges. It doesn’t make me an expert in photography but that won’t prevent me from declaring that this book is a real tour de force.
A Chronology of Photography brings the evolution of photography into its historical, cultural and social contexts. Paul Lowe managed to cram into one book some 200 years of history, technology, art, society without ever making it look laborious nor indigestible.
While charting the rise in popularity and critical appreciation of photography, the publication highlights the main dilemmas and challenges that photographers have struggled with over the years: the use of the medium by human rights champions, advertisers and authoritarian regimes alike; the surge of the camera phone and its questioning of a whole profession; the figure of the photographers are a conceptual artist, innovator or reporter; the exploitation of the tool to advance racist theories or document environmental scandals; the role of photography in unveiling untold stories or serving the revisionism of certain accounts of history; the copyrights issues and the sometimes uneasy relationship between culture and commerce; the documentation of important cultural moments or of society’s daily ridicules; the tensions between personal privacy and overexposure facilitated by social media; etc. Replace the word “photography” with the word “internet” and it will all sound uncannily familiar.
William Wegman, Ray, 2006
The book is also packed with amusing anecdotes and important moments: the rise and fall of Kodak, the game-changing technological discoveries, the introduction of photography as evidence in court or its acceptance as an art form.
The other strength of the book is that the author didn’t go for the obvious when it came to selecting the illustration. There’s some iconic photos here and there but there is also plenty of visual material that hasn’t been printed ad nauseam.
Demonstration below (with a few comments here and there):
Marcus DeSieno, 36.887900, -118.555100, from the series No Man’s Land, 2015
No Man’s Land, presents a series of landscape photographs captured on CCTV cameras in the most surprising places around the world. Marcus DeSieno found online the location of these cameras and got the tools needed to hack into them and get access to the streams. Once he found a view he liked, he would photograph the screen with a large format camera, before using salt paper processing to create a painterly and “timeless” aesthetic.
Gillian Wearing, I’m Desperate, 1992-1993. From the series “Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say”
Defunct television channels, destroyed artworks, missing aircraft, cancelled military projects, former nations, extinct birds, list of sinkholes, discontinued burial techniques, tornadoes, failed banks, discontinued fragrances, obsolete aeronautical machines, etc.
This year, the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale will feature lists of inventions, life forms, phenomena and “things” that no longer exist. The work traces a kind of “history of progress” through the history of obsolescence. Although the “things” listed are now lost to us, their existence still lingers in the present. We might not see them anymore but they’ve made this moment possible.
The lists will be broadcast throughout the city via a network of tree cell towers, the often derided communication towers that camouflage as nature. The fake trees are being installed in various historical sites across Venice: 3 will be located at the New Zealand pavilion as a sort of networked plantation, and 4 in other sites across Venice. Inhabitants and tourists will be able to hear a whispering of the lists as they walk by the synthetic trees.
Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, 2019. Screen shot from production video filmed at SJ Cell Tower & Artificial Plant Company Limited, Guangzhou, China
Dane Mitchell during the installation of the work at Palazzina Canonica in Venice. Image facebook
The artist behind the project is Dane Mitchell, an artist interested in the physical properties of the intangible and visible manifestations of other dimensions.
“We all live in some sort of technological filter bubble,” Mitchell told me when i asked him what guided the selection of lists of defunct things. “The work pushes up hard against the edges of my own — it is undoubtedly an expression of the perimeters of knowledge I might have access to. The work embraces the fallibility of encyclopedic thinking — it is a (western) delusion to assume that we might be able to ‘hold’ the world in such a way, however, Post hoc is contradictorily an attempt to momentarily hold aloft these vanished things that sit under our present moment.
The lists are very much generated by, and authored by me. In this way they have a poetic logic…one list leads to another leads to another and onwards. I started with ten, and was apprehensive about the task of amassing this list — a list that reads for seven months, averaging 25,000 words a day — but through a meandering approach the lists grew. The filter bubble is also an expression of the types of material forces I’m interested in, be it in relation to science, belief, materiality, etc. The ‘bubble’ is certainly an expression of my own habits and predilections.”
Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, 2019. Production still at SJ Cell Tower & Artificial Plant Company Limited, Guangzhou, China
This year, the New Zealand pavilion will be located inside the Palazzina Canonica, the former headquarters of the Marine Research Institute. The Giardini, the historical site of the biennale exhibition, has space for only 29 pavilions of foreign countries. New Zealand is not one of them. Like many other nations, it has to find a palazzo elsewhere to host its exhibition. Dane Mitchell, however, has devised a cunning way to sneak inside the Giardini of the Biennale. He installed one of the tree towers in the Parco delle Rimembranze, a nearby park covered in (natural) pines. Visitors touring the Giardini of the biennale will be able use their wifi-enabled device and grab the transmissions emitted from the neighbouring green space.
I admire the bravery and irony of creating a project that highlights disappearance in a city that’s slowly sinking into physical oblivion. Without even mentioning the art biennial, a format that’s often been labelled as ‘outmoded’.
Interestingly, the title of the exhibition is “Post hoc” which translates to “after this” in Latin, the most famous dead language of the Western world.
Plastic Capitalism. Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste, by Amanda Boetzkes, Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
Publisher MIT Press writes: Ecological crisis has driven contemporary artists to engage with waste in its most non-biodegradable forms: plastics, e-waste, toxic waste, garbage hermetically sealed in landfills. In this provocative and original book, Amanda Boetzkes links the increasing visualization of waste in contemporary art to the rise of the global oil economy and the emergence of ecological thinking. Often, when art is analyzed in relation to the political, scientific, or ecological climate, it is considered merely illustrative. Boetzkes argues that art is constitutive of an ecological consciousness, not simply an extension of it. The visual culture of waste is central to the study of the ecological condition.
Drawing on the writings of Georges Bataille, Timothy Morton, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Rancière and other thinkers of modernity, aesthetics, politics and ecology, Amanda Boetzkes investigates the use of waste in contemporary art. In her essay, the art historian challenges us not to reduce an artwork using waste to a critique of consumer culture or of modernism in general. It’s more complicated than that. If waste is so popular among artists today, she explains, it is because it reveals the value systems, beliefs and politics that shape our planetary condition.
Plastic Capitalism is both a book about contemporary art and an essay that exposes the blind spots between economy and ecology. Through her selection of artworks, the author dissects waste and reveals its many dimensions, dilemmas and contradictions. Waste is both valueless and a commodity. It is visible and invisible. It is a lowly legacy of global capitalism and a formidable force that hides complex industrial infrastructures, labor power and massive energy expenditures.
Alain Delorme, Murmurations: Ephemeral Plastic Sculptures, 2012-2014. Film by Quentin Labail
The final chapter offers a stimulating reflection on plastic. Plastic, Boetzkes explains, is the ultimate petroleum-based material, the agent that symbolizes humanity’s mastery of planet and its total impotence to alter the course of the Anthropocene, it is the icon of throw-away culture and of a durability that stretches into a future when there’s no one left to use it.
I won’t pretend that Plastic Capitalism is a light and easy book. I often found myself huffing and ploughing through the text. Yet, i soldiered on. The author’s readings of the work of well-known and less famous artists (Mal Chin, Agnes Varda, Critical Art Ensemble, Agnes Denes, Thomas Hirschhorn, etc.) opened up new perspectives on performances and installations i thought i knew. It also allowed me to see more clearly that the formidable power of waste extends far beyond its (much visualized and calculated) physical mass.
Some of the works i (re)discovered in Plastic Capitalism:
It’s easy to be a future-phobic these days. It’s easy to be anxious, dubious, critical about what tomorrow will bring. Unfortunately, it’s less easy to ignore the future and pretend we don’t care. The future is, as we know, already here with its cohort of mass extinction, private armies, state surveillance and climate disasters. But is that all there is to the future?
Entrance of the STRP festival. Design by HeyHeyDeHaas. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann for STRP
Quayola, Promenade. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer for STRP
This year’s edition of the STRP festival in Eindhoven decided to look at the future with an open, critical and -dare i say- hopeful eye. Their take on the future is not about being naive and resolutely utopian. It’s more subtle than that. It’s about realizing that being stifled by fear is what leaves us in the hands of powerful corporations, far right politicians and other merchants of solutions too rosy and simple to be credible.
As STRP writes in their statement:
We refuse to flee in a crippling nostalgia. We have had enough of the dark and tough flirt with dystopia and ask ourselves out loud: how in heaven’s name can we come through this conservative and fear-driven period together?
This year, the STRP festival looked for inspiration in artistic experiments that evoke the possibility of a more nuanced future. The participating artists never promised to have all the answers but at least they broaden the questions and perspectives.
I’ll come back later with a report on the STRP conference. In the meantime, here’s my quick tour of some of the artworks i particularly enjoyed in the exhibition this year:
Mike Mills, A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought Alone (excerpt), 2014
Mike Mills interviewed about a dozen children of people who work at Silicon Valley. Some of these parents are engineers, others work at a Google cafeteria.
Aged eight to twelve, these children are the ones who will actually be inhabiting the future that the Silicon Valley is selling to us.
First, the filmmaker asks them to speak briefly about themselves. That’s as charming as you might expect. Soon, however, Mills casts the children as futurologists. It turns out that when they are asked about what tomorrow will bring, kids can be quite ambivalent. Some look at the future with bright, enthusiastic eyes. Others are disillusioned. Most present a mix of enthusiasm and pessimism. On the one hand, they embrace technology. They play Minecraft and think that because we have access to so much knowledge, we must be smarter than our ancestors. But their vision of tomorrow can be bleak too: we won’t have trees anymore, we’ll get holographic plants instead; people won’t meet each other physically because the machines will mediate all human interactions, there probably won’t be any animal around either.
Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders (Implantation of a ‘tragus magnet implant’ is being performed while others are watching and recording the procedure with their mobile phones. Tehachapi, CA)
Body hackers are decidedly less hesitant about the positive impacts of technology on their life. They call themselves Grinders, implant magnets in their finger to aquire a sixth sense, embed speakers into their ears and attempt to get closer to machines in order to simplify their lives.
Hannes Wiedemann met members of this community and documented some of their operations. Since no licensed surgeon would accept to perform these procedures for them, the hackers have to learn how to do it themselves (or to each others). It’s risky and far more gory than the idealised vision of the transhumanist future that Ray Kurzweil and his friends are presenting us with.
What makes their faith in technology so interesting is the way it challenges the future and ethics of body enhancement.
Quayola uses machines to enhance human perception but his approach is far less intrusive than the one adopted by the Grinders. Promenade follows a drone as it is flying over the forests of the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland. The film explores the logic and aesthetics of autonomous vehicles computer-vision systems. These machines scan natural environments, decode and portray them using parameters and perception tools different from the ones a human would use.
The artist conceived this work as another chapter in the long historic tradition of landscape painting. Just like his artistic predecessors, he (or maybe the machine) uses the landscape as a pretext to discover new aesthetic languages.
Teun Vonk, A Sense of Gravity, 2019. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer
Teun Vonk wants to make us more aware of the continuous pull of gravity. His immersive installation encloses the visitor (only one at a time) inside a space that challenges their every senses. But it is less about what you feel when you’re suspended in his big soft vessel and more about how you reconnect with your bodily experience once the trip in the floating bubble is over and you’re walking back onto the ‘normal’ space.
The work invites us to reflect on weightlessness and the relevance of human physicality in the future. Will we completely forget about it as our lives become more and more virtual? Will it take another dimension if we ever get to leave this planet and move to some distant celestial body?
Publisher Lars Müller writes: Modern architecture and the X-ray were born around the same time and evolved in parallel. While the X-ray exposed the inside of the body to the public eye, the modern building unveiled its interior, dramatically inverting the relationship between private and public. Architects presented their buildings as a kind of medical instrument for protecting and enhancing the body and psyche.
Beatriz Colomina traces the psychopathologies of twentieth-century architecture—from the trauma of tuberculosis to more recent disorders such as burn-out syndrome and ADHD—and the huge transformations of privacy and publicity instigated by diagnostic tools from X-Rays to MRIs and beyond. She suggests that if we want to talk about the state of architecture today, we should look to the dominant obsessions with illness and the latest techniques of imaging the body—and ask what effects they have on the way we conceive architecture.
Children during a heliotherapy session, 1937. From: Le Visage de L’enfance (Paris: Horizon, 1937), p. 201
Frits Peutz, Schunck Glass Palace, Heerlen, the Netherlands, 1935
He and many of his fellow modern architects made it one of their missions to expel tuberculosis and other diseases from buildings. It wasn’t just the health of patients that was to be restored but everyone’s. After all, some of these architects believed, we are all sick to some varying degrees.
Beatriz Colomina (whose previous publications The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196x-197x and Domesticity at War i greatly enjoyed) unravels the links between Modern Architecture, tuberculosis and X-ray, the technology associated with it. The hypothesis that tuberculosis helped make modern architecture modern sounds like a bold one but Colomina is very convincing when she explains how architecture responded to the anxieties of a society obsessed with fresh air, sun light, the spreading of germs, physical exercise and hygiene.
Hydrotherapy at the sanatorium “Lebendige Kraft,” full body wrap by Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Brenner, Zurich, 1910. Universität Zürich, Institut für Medizingeschichte Bircher-Brenner-Archiv
Dr Jean Saidman, Revolving Sanatorium in Aix-Les-Bains, France, 1930. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
The general consensus at the time was that a patient suffering from TB needed to live and breathe in an environment that would dry out the inside of their body. Cue to architects designing domestic gym rooms for exercising as well as roofs and balconies for sunbathing.
The real testing ground of new techniques, materials, experiments and architectural innovations however, was the sanatorium. Alvar Aalto, for example, saw patients as ‘horizontal clients’ and adapted the architecture of the medical establishment to their supine position. The Paimio Sanatorium he designed was an integral part of the medical treatment. Radiologist Jean Saidman conceived a revolving sanatorium that ensured that patients faced the sun as much as possible.
Modern architecture aspired to heal the body but also the psyche, with smooth, white and clean surfaces that would anaesthetize bodily sensations. Buildings were thus conceived as a form of medical equipment, an exercise machine but also a cocoon sheltering the fragile psyche. Richard Neutra even claimed that his works could improve the sex life of their inhabitants.
Alvar Aalto, Paimio Sanatorium, exterior view with sundeck balconies, ca. 1934. Alvar Aalto Museum Jyväskylä, Finland
Winning models Marianne Baba (L), Lois Conway (C) and Ruth Swensen standing next to plates of their x-ray during a Chiropractor Beauty contest. (Photo by Wallace Kirkland//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
X-Ray had an even more profound impact on architecture. Its dicovery refashioned the perception of space and in particular the relation between inside and outside. After x-ray, modern buildings started to look like medical imaging with transparent glass walls that revealed the inner structure. Furniture, light bulbs, pyrex cookware followed their lead. And because x-ray also changed the concept of what is visible and what is invisible, the private became the subject of public scrutiny.
Colomina adds another dimension to this architecture: the blurred vision, the glass surface of the building that catches the gaze in layers of reflections of the surrounding environment. Describing the Glass House (1949) he had built, Philip Johnson compared its glass surface to a beautiful, ever-changing wallpaper.
Passive Millimeter Imaging (PMI). Front and back X- ray views of a male subject during BodySearch surveillance. Revealed on the body are bags of cocaine (shoulder, waist); scalpel blades (chest); plastic gun (back); metal gun and file (legs)
You don’t have to be passionate about architecture to be engrossed in this book. The text is witty, clear and packed with anecdotes. The photos are plentiful and often astonishing (to me at least.) More interestingly, Colomina’s research finds many echoes in contemporary society. The impact architecture can have on our well-being is still a contemporary preoccupation, with calls to design buildings that will encourage people to move and shed weight or with the current discussions around sick building syndrome some office workers suffer from. The quest for transparency also remains very much alive. With the difference that surveillance technology has now replaced glass walls. In short, the book might be entertaining but it also does a great job at highlighting how the architectural discipline is capable of assimilating and reflecting changes in society.
Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret boxing on the beach in Piquey, 1933