All posts by we make money not art

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

In 2011, artist Andy Gracie set himself the task of using patient breeding and artificial selection to develop a new species of fruit flies that would be able to live on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Titan is not the most hospitable resort for us Earth-bound creatures. It’s a very dark and very cold (−179.2 °C) place, its surface lacks stable liquid water, its gravity is a bit weaker than the gravity of Earth’s moon, etc. On the other hand, the celestial body has an atmosphere, weather, tectonic activity, some sort of landscape with lakes and dunes as well as other features that make Titan one of the least hostile places for humans in the outer solar system.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Gracie’s experimental breeding programme aims thus to gradually recreate, in an enclosed habitat, the atmospheric conditions found on Titan and make sure that the common fly would slowly acclimate to it. The insects that would emerge from the experiment would be a new species he calls Drosophila Titanus. The artist recreated the atmospheric conditions found on Titan by combining a DIY and hacking approach with a rigorous scientific methodology.

The project Drosophila Titanus belongs to a long tradition of sending flies into space. In fact, they were the first animals sent into space back in 1947 when the U.S.-launched a German V-2 ballistic missile loaded with fruit flies 109 kilometers away from the surface of the earth. The insects came back alive. Since then, they’ve been regularly propelled into space along with plants, rats and other biological organisms. The reason why fruit flies are popular guinea pigs in space and in labs is that they share a lot with us in terms of genetic makeup.

The project is of course impossible to achieve in a human life time but Gracie had planned to work on it for the rest of his life to see how far the experiment would lead him. Unfortunately, the fly population recently went through an environmental disaster, its population crashed and the experiment ended with a few sad corpses of flies.

Drosophila titanus remains a fascinating work and if you’re curious to know more about it, you could run to the always exciting Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions. Or, if you can’t make it to Dublin, here’s an interview with the artist:


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011. Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Hi Andy! Your experiment involves creating flies that could survive on Titan. I understand that Titan is incredibly cold so the flies have to gradually get used to the very low temperatures but what would be the impact of Titan’s orange sky and the low frequency radiowaves that emanate from Titan on their bodies? And how do you prepare them for that?

The project involved adapting the flies for a range of environmental conditions that are very different to those found on Earth. The cold is the most obvious along with the different atmospheric composition. There is also increased atmospheric pressure, radiation, chromatic characteristics and so on. To reach what could be conceived as the end of the project I would need to condition the flies for all of the characteristics of Titan.

The radio waves experiment has been earmarked for a future stage in the project so I haven’t got too much to say about that right now. However, the chromatic adjustment has been something I’ve been working on over the last couple of years. The natural phototaxis of Drosophila – its instinct to move towards a certain type of light – is geared towards the blue end of the electromagnetic spectrum. To overcome this I kept the flies for a year under a Titan analog orange light before testing for adaptation. The selection experiment was modelled on a Y-Trap apparatus, a simple way of offering an organism two choices. The flies crawl up a tube and are faced with a junction offering orange light in one direction and blue light in the other, each tube ending with another non-return trap. Any flies taking the orange option are considered adapted and kept for breeding. Repeated iterations of the project smooth out random events.

You’ve been breeding fruit flies for 6 or 7 years now. Are the changes in the insects already visible? Is anything already perceptible?

Due to the lower temperatures I’ve noticed that their life cycle is longer, which is to say that they mature and reproduce more slowly. The cycle defined by hatching to sexual maturity is 11 to 12 days at an optimum temperature of around 22 celsius. My flies which were living constantly at 15 celsius were taking almost twice as long and also living longer. In the above mentioned chromatic adjustment experiment I was also seeing some flies beginning to choose the orange route. Physiological changes are much harder to see, and I expect it would take several more years and increased adaptations and selections to see anything. The 57 year experiment by the late Dr. Syuichi Mori of Kyoto University and his team was also an inspiration to me in this respect.

And if you were to release the flies in the wild now, would they adjust easily to the outside conditions? Or are they already doomed and unfit to survive on Earth?

I think they would have no problem. Despite 7 years of conditioning and breeding my drosophila were still much much more Earth flies than Titan flies. Their tendency for genetic drift back to what is called wild-type (denoted the natural state of an organism or the prevalent phenotype) is also a factor. If the population remained isolated they would re-adapt to total Earth conditions fairly quickly, otherwise cross-breeding would wipe out any genetic variation in the drosophila titanus.

Bearing in mind one of the subtexts of the project, surviving on Earth might actually be the same as being doomed anyway.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Could you describe your homemade Titan simulation chamber? Has its configuration and equipment changed since the start of the project?

The chamber is an apparatus that has evolved over time as the project has developed. I’m not a great forward planner so the device adapted as I had new ideas or as new necessities presented themselves. The first consideration was being able to make it cold, then to add LEDs that would simulate the Titan lighting conditions. I was lately developing seals that would allow the internal pressure to be increased in order to begin the atmospheric pressure experiment. Future experiments would probably have demanded the fabrication of an entirely new device.

Outside of the main simulator I also made the gravitational realignment torus, it being impractical to rotate the main apparatus. This device did not have a cooling system so gravitaxis experiments had to take place in the winter with the heating off.

A large part of the project for me was drawing from my background in DIY culture – how to improvise experimental apparatus outside of a laboratory or research facility. I was interested in how subtle adjustments of everyday objects and situations can provide conditions that are not typically terrestrial.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

In an interview you gave about the work in 2011, you explain “It originally started out as an artistic project, but I am also interested in how I can run a metaphorical, speculative artistic project by following a completely rigorously scientific process. This means every artistic decision I make has to be accompanied by a rigour check.” How do you verify the scientific rigour of the experiment?

I’ve always been interested in making art that closely follows scientific procedure and Drosophila Titanus is probably the furthest I’ve taken this methodology. The project is purely artistic but without the scientific rigour it would become just a frivolous exercise.

I attempted to be as rigorous as possible by maintaining a control culture alongside my experimental flies, by keeping a lab journal outlining every procedure that took place, by carefully designing experiments according to verified information, by striving to iron out random fluctuations through repeated selection processes. And so on. The corner of my studio that was dedicated to this project was set up to resemble a standard fly lab as much as possible.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Why did you decide to take the scientific process approach? What does it bring to the artistic dimension of the project? How do you manage to still do art and not just a scientific experiment?

As I mentioned, I am interested in what happens when you make an art project by following scientific protocol. Its a way of examining the notion that art and science are both ways of asking questions about nature and devising experiments to see if your hypothesis have any foundation or are cause for further thought.

To push this idea a little further I wanted to make a project that was framed as a scientific experiment and that closely followed a scientific methodology but that had an aim that was patently unscientific. It’s a ridiculous idea to try and breed a new species of drosophila suitable for living on Titan, but if you begin to carry out a serious experiment with the aim of getting there then you get into some interesting and provocative epistemological territory.

By tying together artistic and scientific methodologies I was looking for the ‘breaking point’, a hypothetical locus where what we call art and what we call science become unable to continue sharing practical and ontological space. I think that in this point we discover some very interesting things about how and why we seek new knowledge.

How much do you have to tend to the flies? Do they need a lot of time and attention? Now you’re on holiday are they taking care of themselves?

Regular maintenance is relatively easy. They just need to be ‘passaged’ – a practice of refreshing culture vessel and nutrient medium – every 3 to 4 weeks. This involves cooking up some new medium, sterilising some new culture pots and moving healthy adult flies from the old pots to the new ones. If I was at an experiment or selection point then this process would obviously become more complex. However, the bulk of the 7 years of the project was the flies sitting in their environment slowly getting used to new conditions, eating and mating. And dying.

The question about maintenance and holidays brings me to the point where I have to say that, as of the summer of 2017, the project is officially terminated. While absent from the Barcelona studio for a month the cooling system failed and 99% of the flies perished in the stifling summer temperatures. I was unable to revive stocks from the few survivors. It was fairly apocalyptic.

Faced with the choice of starting again from square one, or declaring the project over having achieved certain aims I decided on the latter. I have the bodies of last 10 flies preserved in alcohol and will probably make a commemorative piece with them. That will be the official end of the line and I can finally spend more time on other works. Actively maintaining a project for several years was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.

It seems likely that large parts of the Earth will be barely inhabitable before the end of the century. Would it make more sense to try and change our own metabolism (maybe through more brutal adjustments than the ones you’re submitting the flies to) or to pack our bags and move to Mars?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are informing a body of current work I’m developing so its something I dwell on to a deeper extent even than when I was doing the post-terrestrial works. To be honest, I think we’re screwed either way. Colonising Mars is the romantic dream of SciFi aficionados and tech-god fanboys and fangirls. The reality is that it would be a chosen few eking out a fairly grim existence that would be barely better, if at all, than a ravaged Earth.

Altering our own physiology could be possible. I’m not totally up to speed with CRISPR but I understand that it could offer radical changes to the human genome in a very short time. As artificial selection of human traits could be even more ethically treacherous and a much slower process it might be seen by some as a solution. But do we really want to go there?

Do you think that at the end of the experiment, the flies will it still be Drosophila melanogaster? Or will you have created a new species of fly?

The claim I made at the beginning of the project was that I was going to develop a new species of Drosophila which would be called Drosophila titanus. To be able to make this claim I would need to test whether speciation had actually happened. Speciation is a broad and complex biological issue, with a range of forms and pathways, and of course some hotly contested definitions.

The standard test would be to check whether Mayr‘s textbook definition is valid, that the two groups are unable to reproduce. If my experimental flies were unable to produce fertile offspring with the control flies then I could claim a new species. However, I would also be interested to check whether I have achieved any of the other species descriptions such as typological, ecological or genetic. I’m completely convinced that it would be achievable and that Drosophila titanus would be listed among the official taxonomies.

The argument about what constitutes a species was another of the sub-narratives of the work.

Thanks Andy!


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Drosophila Titanus is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

In 2011, artist Andy Gracie set himself the task of using patient breeding and artificial selection to develop a new species of fruit flies that would be able to live on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Titan is not the most hospitable resort for us Earth-bound creatures. It’s a very dark and very cold (−179.2 °C) place, its surface lacks stable liquid water, its gravity is a bit weaker than the gravity of Earth’s moon, etc. On the other hand, the celestial body has an atmosphere, weather, tectonic activity, some sort of landscape with lakes and dunes as well as other features that make Titan one of the least hostile places for humans in the outer solar system.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Gracie’s experimental breeding programme aims thus to gradually recreate, in an enclosed habitat, the atmospheric conditions found on Titan and make sure that the common fly would slowly acclimate to it. The insects that would emerge from the experiment would be a new species he calls Drosophila Titanus. The artist recreated the atmospheric conditions found on Titan by combining a DIY and hacking approach with a rigorous scientific methodology.

The project Drosophila Titanus belongs to a long tradition of sending flies into space. In fact, they were the first animals sent into space back in 1947 when the U.S.-launched a German V-2 ballistic missile loaded with fruit flies 109 kilometers away from the surface of the earth. The insects came back alive. Since then, they’ve been regularly propelled into space along with plants, rats and other biological organisms. The reason why fruit flies are popular guinea pigs in space and in labs is that they share a lot with us in terms of genetic makeup.

The project is of course impossible to achieve in a human life time but Gracie had planned to work on it for the rest of his life to see how far the experiment would lead him. Unfortunately, the fly population recently went through an environmental disaster, its population crashed and the experiment ended with a few sad corpses of flies.

Drosophila titanus remains a fascinating work and if you’re curious to know more about it, you could run to the always exciting Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions. Or, if you can’t make it to Dublin, here’s an interview with the artist:


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011. Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Hi Andy! Your experiment involves creating flies that could survive on Titan. I understand that Titan is incredibly cold so the flies have to gradually get used to the very low temperatures but what would be the impact of Titan’s orange sky and the low frequency radiowaves that emanate from Titan on their bodies? And how do you prepare them for that?

The project involved adapting the flies for a range of environmental conditions that are very different to those found on Earth. The cold is the most obvious along with the different atmospheric composition. There is also increased atmospheric pressure, radiation, chromatic characteristics and so on. To reach what could be conceived as the end of the project I would need to condition the flies for all of the characteristics of Titan.

The radio waves experiment has been earmarked for a future stage in the project so I haven’t got too much to say about that right now. However, the chromatic adjustment has been something I’ve been working on over the last couple of years. The natural phototaxis of Drosophila – its instinct to move towards a certain type of light – is geared towards the blue end of the electromagnetic spectrum. To overcome this I kept the flies for a year under a Titan analog orange light before testing for adaptation. The selection experiment was modelled on a Y-Trap apparatus, a simple way of offering an organism two choices. The flies crawl up a tube and are faced with a junction offering orange light in one direction and blue light in the other, each tube ending with another non-return trap. Any flies taking the orange option are considered adapted and kept for breeding. Repeated iterations of the project smooth out random events.

You’ve been breeding fruit flies for 6 or 7 years now. Are the changes in the insects already visible? Is anything already perceptible?

Due to the lower temperatures I’ve noticed that their life cycle is longer, which is to say that they mature and reproduce more slowly. The cycle defined by hatching to sexual maturity is 11 to 12 days at an optimum temperature of around 22 celsius. My flies which were living constantly at 15 celsius were taking almost twice as long and also living longer. In the above mentioned chromatic adjustment experiment I was also seeing some flies beginning to choose the orange route. Physiological changes are much harder to see, and I expect it would take several more years and increased adaptations and selections to see anything. The 57 year experiment by the late Dr. Syuichi Mori of Kyoto University and his team was also an inspiration to me in this respect.

And if you were to release the flies in the wild now, would they adjust easily to the outside conditions? Or are they already doomed and unfit to survive on Earth?

I think they would have no problem. Despite 7 years of conditioning and breeding my drosophila were still much much more Earth flies than Titan flies. Their tendency for genetic drift back to what is called wild-type (denoted the natural state of an organism or the prevalent phenotype) is also a factor. If the population remained isolated they would re-adapt to total Earth conditions fairly quickly, otherwise cross-breeding would wipe out any genetic variation in the drosophila titanus.

Bearing in mind one of the subtexts of the project, surviving on Earth might actually be the same as being doomed anyway.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Could you describe your homemade Titan simulation chamber? Has its configuration and equipment changed since the start of the project?

The chamber is an apparatus that has evolved over time as the project has developed. I’m not a great forward planner so the device adapted as I had new ideas or as new necessities presented themselves. The first consideration was being able to make it cold, then to add LEDs that would simulate the Titan lighting conditions. I was lately developing seals that would allow the internal pressure to be increased in order to begin the atmospheric pressure experiment. Future experiments would probably have demanded the fabrication of an entirely new device.

Outside of the main simulator I also made the gravitational realignment torus, it being impractical to rotate the main apparatus. This device did not have a cooling system so gravitaxis experiments had to take place in the winter with the heating off.

A large part of the project for me was drawing from my background in DIY culture – how to improvise experimental apparatus outside of a laboratory or research facility. I was interested in how subtle adjustments of everyday objects and situations can provide conditions that are not typically terrestrial.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

In an interview you gave about the work in 2011, you explain “It originally started out as an artistic project, but I am also interested in how I can run a metaphorical, speculative artistic project by following a completely rigorously scientific process. This means every artistic decision I make has to be accompanied by a rigour check.” How do you verify the scientific rigour of the experiment?

I’ve always been interested in making art that closely follows scientific procedure and Drosophila Titanus is probably the furthest I’ve taken this methodology. The project is purely artistic but without the scientific rigour it would become just a frivolous exercise.

I attempted to be as rigorous as possible by maintaining a control culture alongside my experimental flies, by keeping a lab journal outlining every procedure that took place, by carefully designing experiments according to verified information, by striving to iron out random fluctuations through repeated selection processes. And so on. The corner of my studio that was dedicated to this project was set up to resemble a standard fly lab as much as possible.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Why did you decide to take the scientific process approach? What does it bring to the artistic dimension of the project? How do you manage to still do art and not just a scientific experiment?

As I mentioned, I am interested in what happens when you make an art project by following scientific protocol. Its a way of examining the notion that art and science are both ways of asking questions about nature and devising experiments to see if your hypothesis have any foundation or are cause for further thought.

To push this idea a little further I wanted to make a project that was framed as a scientific experiment and that closely followed a scientific methodology but that had an aim that was patently unscientific. It’s a ridiculous idea to try and breed a new species of drosophila suitable for living on Titan, but if you begin to carry out a serious experiment with the aim of getting there then you get into some interesting and provocative epistemological territory.

By tying together artistic and scientific methodologies I was looking for the ‘breaking point’, a hypothetical locus where what we call art and what we call science become unable to continue sharing practical and ontological space. I think that in this point we discover some very interesting things about how and why we seek new knowledge.

How much do you have to tend to the flies? Do they need a lot of time and attention? Now you’re on holiday are they taking care of themselves?

Regular maintenance is relatively easy. They just need to be ‘passaged’ – a practice of refreshing culture vessel and nutrient medium – every 3 to 4 weeks. This involves cooking up some new medium, sterilising some new culture pots and moving healthy adult flies from the old pots to the new ones. If I was at an experiment or selection point then this process would obviously become more complex. However, the bulk of the 7 years of the project was the flies sitting in their environment slowly getting used to new conditions, eating and mating. And dying.

The question about maintenance and holidays brings me to the point where I have to say that, as of the summer of 2017, the project is officially terminated. While absent from the Barcelona studio for a month the cooling system failed and 99% of the flies perished in the stifling summer temperatures. I was unable to revive stocks from the few survivors. It was fairly apocalyptic.

Faced with the choice of starting again from square one, or declaring the project over having achieved certain aims I decided on the latter. I have the bodies of last 10 flies preserved in alcohol and will probably make a commemorative piece with them. That will be the official end of the line and I can finally spend more time on other works. Actively maintaining a project for several years was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.

It seems likely that large parts of the Earth will be barely inhabitable before the end of the century. Would it make more sense to try and change our own metabolism (maybe through more brutal adjustments than the ones you’re submitting the flies to) or to pack our bags and move to Mars?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are informing a body of current work I’m developing so its something I dwell on to a deeper extent even than when I was doing the post-terrestrial works. To be honest, I think we’re screwed either way. Colonising Mars is the romantic dream of SciFi aficionados and tech-god fanboys and fangirls. The reality is that it would be a chosen few eking out a fairly grim existence that would be barely better, if at all, than a ravaged Earth.

Altering our own physiology could be possible. I’m not totally up to speed with CRISPR but I understand that it could offer radical changes to the human genome in a very short time. As artificial selection of human traits could be even more ethically treacherous and a much slower process it might be seen by some as a solution. But do we really want to go there?

Do you think that at the end of the experiment, the flies will it still be Drosophila melanogaster? Or will you have created a new species of fly?

The claim I made at the beginning of the project was that I was going to develop a new species of Drosophila which would be called Drosophila titanus. To be able to make this claim I would need to test whether speciation had actually happened. Speciation is a broad and complex biological issue, with a range of forms and pathways, and of course some hotly contested definitions.

The standard test would be to check whether Mayr‘s textbook definition is valid, that the two groups are unable to reproduce. If my experimental flies were unable to produce fertile offspring with the control flies then I could claim a new species. However, I would also be interested to check whether I have achieved any of the other species descriptions such as typological, ecological or genetic. I’m completely convinced that it would be achievable and that Drosophila titanus would be listed among the official taxonomies.

The argument about what constitutes a species was another of the sub-narratives of the work.

Thanks Andy!


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Drosophila Titanus is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin

No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Grounds

Final notes from my visit of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Grounds at MUDAM in Luxembourg:


Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017


Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017


Hayoun Kwon, 489 Years, 2016

National parks, reserves and other forms of sanctuarization of ecosystems are often used as a measure to protect natural territories from the detrimental impact of human activity. No Man’s Land brought together artworks that explore this issue and invite us to re-examine our relationship with the natural world.

I mentioned some of the works exhibited over the past few days (On thrombolites and other victims of human folly and Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica) and i wish i’d have been able to do a proper review of the show earlier. No Man’s Land closed last Sunday. It was small but dense with ideas, moving pleas and incentives to rethink the way our (short-term) economic and political interests slowly consume the only planet we have.

Some of the videos and installations exhibited offered surprisingly convincing remedies to our environmental woes, others confronted us with a poignant portrayal of the consequences of our disconnection from the rest of the living world.


Hayoun Kwon, 489 Years, 2016. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Hayoun Kwon, 489 Years, 2016 (excerpt)

It has been estimated that would take 489 years to demine the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.

489 Years is animated film based on the testimony of a former South Korean soldier who used to be stationed in the D.M.Z. We’re thus literary in No Man’s Land territory. Since only authorized personnel can enter the DMZ, Hayoun Kwon uses animation and the soldier’s memories of his patrols to reconstruct the space.

Over time and in the absence of human activity, nature has taken over inside the forbidden space. Between the guard towers, the fences, the barbed wires and the walls, there are streams and hills as well as animals and plant species that thrive in the strip of land that that divides the Korean Peninsula in two.

The gamer’s FPS (first-person-shooter) perspective and the personal narrative recreate the feeling of a place inhabited by both a unique biodiversity and an anxiety for landmines and other invisible dangers.


Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing


Mel Chin, blueprint for Revival Field, 1990

Revival Field is a phytoremediation experiment Mel Chin undertook at Superfund site Pig’s Eye Landfill, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The artist used hyperaccumulator plants as a low-cost means of remediating polluted soil. The species planted on top of the waste tip soak up heavy metal toxins like cadmium, zinc, and nickel from the ground through their roots. When the plants are mature they are harvested, dried and incinerated to recover the metals that is then re-sold to cover the cost of the procedure. Chin collaborated with Dr. Rufus Chaney, a research agronomist who had done pioneering research on the subject in a lab but who had so far never had the opportunity to conduct field research on a contaminated site.

The garden demonstrated that ‘green remediation’ could be a successful low-tech alternative to expensive and ineffective remediation methods to reclaim contaminated soil and toxic waste. It also showed that art can have real, healing effects on the environment.

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Returning a sound, 2004


Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Returning a sound, 2004. Photo: Lisson gallery

Vieques is an island off the mainland of Puerto Rico used by the U.S Navy and NATO forces as military testing ground as from the 1940s.

The inhabitants, angry at the expropriation of their land and the environmental and health impacts of weapons testing, organized a campaign of protests and civil disobedience that led to the departure of the U.S. Navy in 2003.

Allora & Calzadilla made a series of works relating to the recent history of this island. One of their videos poetically communicate the interplay between militarism and sound. In Returning A Sound, Homar, an activist, drives around the island on a motorcycle as if reclaiming the territory. The silencer of the vehicle was replaced by a trumpet that echoes the traumatizing sounds of bomb explosions that had shaken the lives of the Vieques inhabitants for decades.

“As artists, we became interested in questions related to the sonic violence that marked this space, as it was exposed to earsplitting detonations up to 250 days out of the year,” explained Guillermo Calzadilla. “The first work we made in that regard was Returning A Sound, which we filmed just after the military lands were semi-opened to the public in 2003.”


Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg


Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017

Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E is a quiet and poignant protest against climate change and the decay of local culture in the Philippines. In this subaquatic procession, men wearing all kinds of historical, religious or folkloric costumes advance slowly against the sea and its shifting currents. Leading the parade is a man dressed as the Santo Niño (the child Jesus, Patron of the islands) and carrying a doppelgänger statue. The silent and mesmerizing march replicates Ati-atihan, a celebration that takes place annually on firm ground.

The underwater parade reenacts some of the violent—both natural and political—moments the local communities have been through: the super typhoon Yolanda, the war on drugs, the exodus to find work overseas, etc. The seabed and the corals that surround the performers are unwilling actors that symbolize the assaults to local ecosystems.


Brandon Ballangée, Prelude to the Collapse of the North Atlantic, 2013. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Collapse is an innocent-looking but nevertheless brutal visualization of one of the tangible consequences of the crises oceans are facing. The specimens kept inside the glass jars pilled up in the shape of a pyramid were bought on a fish market. Some are raw fish and seafood we eat, others were caught by mistake but nevertheless displayed by the fishmongers. These sea creatures represent only a tiny portion of the aquatic organisms that inhabit our oceans. The amazing seabed diversity is being impoverished not only by the plastic pollution that makes the headlines these days but also by oil spills, acidification, overfishing and other environmental degradation. This loss is symbolized by some of the glass jars that remained empty of the extinct species they were meant to contain. How long till more empty jars are added? And what will it take for humanity to react and realize the consequence of this relentless erosion of marine biosystems?

More images from the exhibition:


Allora & Calzadilla, Half Mast/Full Mast, 2010. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg


Mark Dion, Mobile Bio Type–Jungle, 2002. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg


Piero Gilardi, Tronchi Caduti, 1990. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. © Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

No Man’s Land was curated by Marie-Noëlle Farcy, Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. The show remains open until 09/09/2018 at MUDAM in Luxembourg.

If you want to see truly awful photos of the exhibition, check out mine on flickr.

Previously: Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica and On thrombolites and other victims of human folly.

Crises of labour, language and behaviour. An interview with Jeremy Hutchison

I discovered Jeremy Hutchison’s work in 2011 when he was exhibiting a series of laughable objects he had commissioned to manufacturers around the world. Not only did he ask them to fabricate items that would be unusable but he also requested that each worker had full license to decide what the error, flaw and glitch in the final product would be. Hutchison ended up with a collection of dysfunctional objects and prints of online exchanges with baffled factory managers. Err is an artwork that’s both ridiculous and profound. Behind its perfectly impractical combs, chairs, skateboards and trumpets, lay moments of poetry within the perfectly oiled machine of globalization and an elusive portrait of the anonymous factory workforce that manufacture all the consumer goods we don’t need but have been conditioned to yearn for.


Jeremy Hutchison, ERR, 2011. Untitled (made by Carlos Barrachina, Segorbina de Bastones, Segorbe, Spain)


Jeremy Hutchison, Movables, 2017. Fondazione Prada curated by Evelyn Simons. Photo by Paris Tavitian

At the time, I was expecting Hutchison to be a one hit wonder. I liked Err so much, i imperiously decided the artist would never be able to live up to everyone’s expectations. And yet, over the years, he kept on creating artworks that “explore improper arrangements of labour, language, behaviour and material to produce crises.” Artworks that proved my instincts wrong again and again: canvases involving BOTH an investment banker and an Occupy protestor, an exhibition orchestrated by members of the Sapporo Police Department, a video starring employees of a peanut factory without peanuts and a series of consumer goods that explore the (possible) “well-meaning dictatorship” of design.

Whether it meditates on the condition of the worker or investigates the recuperation of anti-capitalistic aesthetics by capitalism, Hutchison’s work is always imbued with humour and compassion. He’s having a few exhibitions across Europe this month. One of them is Transnationalisms which opens this week at Furtherfield in London. I liked Aksioma‘s version of the show in Ljubljana so much, i thought i’d use the London edition of Transnationalisms as an excuse to get in touch with the artist.


Jeremy Hutchison, from the series Movables, 2017. Courtesy the artist


Jeremy Hutchison, from the series Movables, 2017. Courtesy the artist

Hi Jeremy! Your project Movables will be part of the Transnationalisms group show that opens this week at Furtherfield in London. I find the work very moving. You sourced an image from the Daily Mail – a website that spreads hatred and contempt towards immigrants – and you used this as a starting point to question the regulations over the freedom of movement. Can you tell me more about this work?

Yes: I came across this photo on the Daily Mail website. It had been taken by police at a border point somewhere in the Balkans. The image showed the inside of a Mercedes: the headrests of the front seats had been torn open by police, revealing a human body hiding inside each seat.

This photograph testifies to a reality where human bodies attempt to disguise themselves as inanimate objects, simply to acquire the same freedom of movement as consumer goods.

In Movables, I translated this absurdity into a series of photo collages. They combine elements of high-end fashion shoots and car adverts – enacting an anthropomorphic fusion between human bodies and consumer products. The results are sort of uncanny. They appropriate a familiar visual language, but distort it to present a series of freaks. In doing this, I wanted them to embody a contradictory premise of global capitalism – with respect to the freedom of movement. Capital requires ‘free’ individuals to function as cheap labour forces. But it simultaneously needs to restrict their movement since it can’t offer the same freedom to everyone. 


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. Courtesy the artist


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor

You are currently showing Fabrications at Division of Labour. For this project, you spent time in a jeans factory in Palestine and asked the workers to make jeans that translated what it was like to make jeans in Palestine. How did they react to your request?

Well, this project started with a conversation I had with the factory manager. He showed me a photograph of an Israeli tank, parked outside the factory. Its cannon was pointed directly at the building. He said it was hard to describe the physiological effect of this experience: of working under the threat of total obliteration.

So I asked him if he could manufacture jeans that described it instead. He produced five pairs. Each was distorted into unwearable positions; monstrous contortions of human legs. In some ways, I think they point to the way in which trauma becomes inscribed on the body. Stress isn’t simply a psychological state, it’s an embodied experience. It becomes genetically encoded, and passed down through generations. I think these jeans describe something of this process; how history is inscribed on the body – producing material, anatomical realities.


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor

Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2016

The description on your website says that the “project constructs a counter-history of Palestine.” What do you mean by that? And how does Fabrications achieve it?

I’ve produced a number of projects in the Middle East. And the more time I spend there, the harder it becomes to think in terms of facts, history, or truth. Whatever position you take, it’s subject to a myriad of subjective distortions.

So in this project, I accelerate this process. Via a series of heavily retouched images, I suggest that Palestine was once bright blue, like the sky. Vast quarries of dazzling indigo rock spilled out of the land. They used the indigo to dye jeans. In turn, this attracted foreign investment, colonisation – and ultimately the Indigo Wars.

Of course, this is absurd. Indigo isn’t a mineral, but a flower. There were no indigo mines, no Indigo Wars, and Palestine was never blue. By invoking this fictitious narrative, the work invites a critical reflection around the construction of historical discourse, alluding to the distortions that take place in the structuring of history. But ludicrous as it may be, this falsified history operates in a tension with contemporary reality. After all, Palestine’s representation in Western media is plagued by uncertainty. Its geopolitical status is perpetually ambiguous. So the work concentrates this state of uncertainty into a poetic delusion. The land itself becomes a vessel for the imagination.

I’ve exhibited this work several times – including the ICA in London, the EVA Biennale in Ireland. What’s interesting is how often it passes for historical fact: how readily a fictitious history is unquestioningly accepted by a sophisticated audience. Perhaps this is part of the project’s success: it performs its own problem. It demonstrates how truths can be manufactured and circulated, like consumer goods. And it points to the role of white British men in doing so.


Jeremy Hutchison, In heaven people play peacefully sometimes people helping each other love making and working together peacefully, 2016. Photo by Rebecca Lennon


Jeremy Hutchison, In heaven people play peacefully sometimes people helping each other love making and working together peacefully, 2016. Photo by Rebecca Lennon

I’m interested in your work In heaven people play peacefully sometimes. In this project you invited four Task Rabbit workers to paint a mural as if they were a single person. Does the performance point to potential new forms of collaboration that would somehow counterbalance the new tech-mediated trends in labour that dehumanize workers and reduce them to just another cog in the machine?

In many ways, yes. I wanted to explore a situation that rehearsed a kind of solidarity between this distributed workforce. A physical solidarity among workers in the gig economy. None of them had ever worked alongside another ‘Tasker’ – in fact, they’d barely even met one. And this is precisely the point. The fragmentation of workers in the gig economy means that they are pitted against one another. Their individual success depends on their ability to outperform their peers – not to organise or collaborate with them.

The project was triggered by something a gig worker told me. He had stopped using the leather case for his iPhone. Why? Because the time it took to open the flap would result in him losing a gig. During that split-second delay, another worker would get there first. The apparently casual working conditions of the gig economy don’t produce casual workers, but individuated neurotics, fixated on data, personal rankings and milliseconds.

So in this sense, I’d agree with you: we can see the gig worker as a ‘cog in a machine.’ But do the new tech-mediated trends in labour de-humanize workers? Not always. In fact, I think it’s precisely the workers’ humanity – their human capital – that is often foregrounded in these labour platforms. Their personality, social attributes and subjective traits are commodified in their profile pages. So rather than de-humanising workers, I would argue that digital technology does the opposite. It obliges us to amplify our subjective human traits: to exaggerate our individuality and present it as a quantifiable economic resource.

With each new project, it seems that you uncover and investigate a new aspect of production, of consumption but also of labour and how technology is changing its dynamics and logics. How does it affect you personally? How does it change (if it does) the way you shop, work, relate to others?

Well I buy fair trade, I don’t eat meat and I boycott fast fashion. But I have an iPhone that’s stuffed with conflict minerals from Congolese mines. Like everyone else, I’m inextricably complicit in these exploitative networks of production and consumption. Try as we might, it’s extremely difficult to adopt a position outside them. I guess I’m interested in understanding my own complicity and articulating this; to trace out a relationship between my own lifestyle and a global problematic. How do my consumer choices relate to current humanitarian catastrophes? How does the stuff I buy feed off racial hierarchies, economic inequalities, and exploitative supply chains? Consumer objects are portraits of these things – and like most people, my home is filled with them. So I think my art practice helps me to think about the invisible structures that support my privileged Western position. These structures are man-made: they can be re-shaped and distorted by us. I think art can be a way to think through these questions.

Jeremy Hutchison, Monolimum, 2017


Jeremy Hutchison, Limomolum, 2016, Documentation of linocutting workshops at Trust In Fife housing shelter, Kirkcaldy

I learnt a lot from the text you wrote for Limomolum. I found it very moving too. Is this all based on your own experience/relationship with linoleum? Or did you mix stories you heard while in Kirkcaldy?

Thanks Regine, yes all the texts draw on my own experience. Limomolum explores a town called Kirkcaldy on the East coast of Scotland. For two centuries, it was a very productive, affluent place: home of the global linoleum industry. But in the eighties, it started to fall apart. Today Kirkcaldy is largely a place of unemployment and drug addiction.

My father was born there. His family owned a linoleum factory, but he was estranged from them. So I grew up knowing very little about the town. So I took the train up there, and set out to explore. One morning I wandered into the homeless shelter and started chatting to a couple of residents. This was the beginning of a year-long project: we turned the shelter into a performance centre, and the employment support clinic into a linocutting workshop. The work was exhibited in the Kirkcaldy museum.

So yes, I wrote a publication to accompany this show. I wanted to try and capture the complexity of this place, without reducing this constellation of histories and economies. When projects become as extensive as this one, there’s a temptation to make the work complex. I find that writing helps to keep things simple.


Jeremy Hutchison in collaboration with James Inglis and Deone Hunter, Limomolum, 2016. HD video still


Jeremy Hutchison in collaboration with James Inglis and Deone Hunter, Limomolum, 2016. HD video still

I only have an external and superficial perspective on your work of course but it seems to me that you manage to establish a relationship based on mutual trust and respect with the workers (or unemployed people) you feature in your works. How do you manage to convince them that you’re not there to exploit them and make a spectacle of their life? How much efforts, strategies does that require?

These are complex ethical questions. How do I convince people to work with me? How do I avoid making a spectacle of their lives? I don’t think I necessarily do. If we engage with them squarely, the exchanges that take place in social practice are often loaded with asymmetrical power relations. Value can be produced in tacit, invisible ways. Rather than smoothing over awkward socioeconomic imbalances, I try fold these questions into the work. I think the more interesting answer is to be honest, about when social arrangements become exploitative, or turn sour, or fail. Despite my best efforts to anticipate ethical problems, sometimes I fall right into them. I don’t think the answer is to avoid these messy situations, but to move through them.

You were recently on residency in Japan. Can you tell me what you were doing there?

I went to Japan to think about labour conditions. I wanted to explore a country that even has a word for work-induced death: karoshi. Given the relentless pressure to work, what will happen when jobs are automated? How will Japanese people navigate the existential challenge of a post-work condition? What will they do?

This resulted in a project called HumanWork. Borrowing its name from the premier recruitment agency in Japan, it explores the process of recruiting someone for a week of non-productive labour. The project was commissioned by Arts Catalyst / S-Air, and should be exhibited fairly soon. Oh, and I also made a project with the Sapporo Police Department. But I’ll tell you about that another time!

Thanks Jeremy!

Transnationalisms, curated by James Bridle, is at Furtherfield in London, from 15 Sep until Sunday 21 Oct 2018.
Jeremy Hutchison’s work is also part of APPAREL at Division of Labour in Salford, Manchester, Jerwood Drawing Prize at Drawing Projects in Trowbridge, Market Forces at HeRo Gallery in Amsterdam and many more i’m sure.

Transnationalisms is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Previously: Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 1. The exhibition and Err (or the creativity of the factory worker), a conversation with Jeremy Hutchison.

On thrombolites and other victims of human folly

After Monday’s look at Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica, here’s another artwork i discovered at the exhibition No Man’s Land in MUDAM, Luxembourg.


Art Orienté Objet, Pieta Australiana, 2011

Back in 2009, Peter Garrett, the then Australian Minister of Environment, Heritage and the Arts (and incidentally the lead singer of rock band Midnight Oil), acknowledged the concerns of the scientific community when he added the thrombolites of Lake Clifton in Western Australia to the list of critically endangered communities.


Art Orienté Objet, Les premières formes de vie sur terre, 2011

The thrombolites might look like boring flat rocks but they constitute a unique ecosystem. These rare and extremely primitive life forms have been built over time by single-celled bacteria which deposit layers upon layers of silt and calcium. Scientists believe thrombolites are the earliest form of life on earth, dating back millions of years. What makes them important for mankind and for the environment as we know and love it is that they are believed to be at the origins of oxygen in the atmosphere. Without them, none of us would be here. Local Aboriginal populations already recognized the fragility and importance of the site and regarded it as a sacred, taboo area that men shouldn’t disturb.

And yet, the survival of thrombolites are endangered by the development of nearby urban areas, the increase in salinity of the lake and other environmental disturbances caused by climate change.


Art Orienté Objet, Anthropocene, 2011


Art Orienté Objet, Lake Clifton, 2011

A few years ago and at the invitation of bio-art organisation SymbioticA, Marion Laval-Jeantet et Benoît Mangin from Art Orienté Objet immersed themselves in the cultural and ecological environs of Lake Clifton and proposed a series of artistic projects that respond to the threats faced by the Thrombolites. Some of these works are currently exhibited as part of the exhibition No Man’s Land at MUDAM in Luxembourg.


Art Orienté Objet, Plutôt que tout, 2011-2016. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg



Art Orienté Objet, one of the “Lampes catastrophes”, 2005, reedition 2018

These projects include a documentary featuring the community of activists fighting for the survival of the lake, TV programs in which Laval-Jeantet and Mangin discussed with ecology experts (and a very cheerful moderator) about the anthropocene, as well as an online petition to have this unique habitat listed as a Unesco World Heritage listing. The artists believe that the only, albeit slim, chance of survival for the thrombolite takes the form of international attention (and thus pressure on the Australian government.) By bringing the local thrombolite problem into the global context, the artists also suggested that we are all concerned by ecological disruptions no matter how far away they might seem from our daily life and geographical position. Unfortunately, the petition didn’t get the broad attention it deserved.

The works they show at Mudam also include a series of “lampes catastrophes” which, when on, display all kinds of man-made ecological catastrophes: a mega industrial complex in Ohio, a nuclear bomb explosion, a forest fire, a heavily polluted lake in Ukraine, etc. I was also very moved by AOO’s photographic take on the Christian art motif Pietà. In their version, artist Marion Laval-Jeantet plays the role of the Virgin Mary and the son she cradles is one of the dozens of kangaroos that get hit by cars in Australia every year (see image of top of this story.)

It’s only when i arrived back home that i realized that the raw-wooden chairs i sat on to watch their videos were cut from a tree that had stood firm on the Île de Ré for centuries until it was uprooted by the heavy storms that hit several parts of Europe in 1999.

No matter how diverse these works might seem, or how distant from each other their disastrous subjects might be, they touch each and everyone of us because we all live on the same planet and we (Western cultures especially) are all responsible for its accelerating deterioration.

No Man’s Land was curated by Marie-Noëlle Farcy, Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. The show remains open until 09/09/2018 at MUDAM in Luxembourg.

Previously: Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica and Biorama 2: Save the thrombolites.
By Art Orienté Objet: Que le cheval vive en moi (May the horse live in me) and an interview i made with the artists many many years ago.

Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica


Paul Rosero Contreras, Arriba!, 2017 (détail). Photo by PRC and Narodzkiy

Last year, during the Antarctic Biennale, Paul Rosero Contreras installed a kind of tropical time capsule right in the Antarctic Archipelago. His Arriba! installation consists of a cocoa plant shipped from the Ecuador Amazonian rainforest, enclosed inside a temperature-controlled container and displayed on top of an Antarctic glacier. The glass container protected the plant as much as it protected the snow-covered landscape where regulations forbid the introduction of any alien flora and fauna.

Paul Rosero Contreras, Arriba!, 2017. Video: Antarctic Biennale art projects

The work alludes to the distant history of the polar region. Millions of years ago, the now ice-covered landmass was a tropical paradise, with lush palm trees, balmy temperatures and furry animals. Pollen and micro-fossils found in drill cores obtained from under the seafloor off the coast of Antarctica have indeed revealed that the area went through an intense warming phase around 52 million years ago.

More disturbingly, the installation also looks at a not so distant future, when climate will have changed so drastically that the atmospheric conditions and landscapes we used to take for granted will be modified beyond recognition. Will protecting plants under glass jars still be seen as an artistic eccentricity? How far will we go to protect nature? Is seeds in Svalbard vault only the beginning of something more sinister? How many contradictions will we tolerate in order to ensure that (capitalistic) life goes on as usual?


Paul Rosero Contreras, Arriba!, 2017. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg


Paúl Rosero Contreras, Arriba! 2017 (detail). Organic Premium Chocolate produced by Pacari for the explorers of the South Pole.

I discovered Arriba! at the the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, at Mudam in Luxembourg. I’ll come back later this week with a proper report on the show. It’s small but it’s so good, i’m glad i made the trip to Luxembourg just to see it.

No Man’s Land was curated by Marie-Noëlle Farcy, Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. The show remains open until 09/09/2018 at MUDAM in Luxembourg.

Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies

Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies, edited by artist and researcher Bogomir Doringer in collaboration with curator and cultural studies scholar Brigitte Felderer.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher De Gruyter writes: The contributions to this book explore a phenomenon that appears to be a contradiction in itself – we, the users of computers, can be tracked in digital space for all eternity. Although, on the one hand, one wants to be noticed and noticeable, on the other hand one does not necessarily want to be recognized at the first instance, being prey to an unfathomable public, or – even less so – to lose face.

The book documents artistic and other strategies that point out options for appearing in the infinite book of faces whilst nevertheless avoiding being included in any records. The desire not to become a mere object of facial sell-out does not just remain an aesthetic endeavor. The contributions also contain combative and sarcastic statements against a digital dynamic that has already penetrated our everyday lives.


REBEL YUTHS, Masks, 2011-2013


Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons We Stand Strong, 2016. Photo: Fraser Denholm and Yvi Philipp

I love exhibition catalogues. Most of them give you a colourful overview of a show you’ve had the bad idea to miss. Others, however, do far more than that. They take the print as an opportunity to bring different voices around the pages to dissect and discuss a particular field of research, expanding on the exhibition itself and becoming a work of reference in the process. Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies is of the latter breed.

Faceless started as a duo of exhibitions that opened at Q21_ in Vienna in 2013. The shows investigated the hiding, distorting and masking of the face in post-9/11 visual culture. The practice, set against the backdrop of a massive production of images and a political frenzy to supervise movements, responds to various motivations: a need to regain some control over an identity, to protest against control and surveillance, to challenge mainstream ideas of acceptable bodies, etc.

As the book demonstrates, the strategies adopted to morph and conceal a face are as diverse as they are creative. It’s quite interesting to contrast some of them with the now normalized practice of publishing selfies in which the face has gone through so much (physical) makeup and (digital) filters action that the individual is barely recognizable. Everyone knows you don’t look like that at all in real life but we’ve stopped batting an eyelid a long time ago.

The essays and artistic contributions featured in the book are consistently excellent. Thomas Macho, for example, charts the strategies of facelessness through art history. Matthias Tarasiewicz discusses the zero trust society and the necessity to literally play hide and seek with surveillance infrastructures in order to obtain personal privacy online. Hille Koskela explains how exhibitionism, aided by digital media, has become “the new normal”. Teresa Dillon comments on the violent and material role that CCTV cameras play in urban life. Adam Harvey presents an e-commerce platform entirely dedicated to accessories and tricks for countersurveillance. Rosa Menkman has an eye-opening look at the use and abuse of the faces of (Caucasian) women in the history of image processing.

The best surprise for me, little Margiela maniac, was to find excerpts from the interviews that mint film office had done with members of the Martin Margiela team for their WE MARGIELA documentary. Margiela was an iconic fashion designer famous for the way he shrouded himself in invisibility. He shunned public appearances, refused to release any official portrait and accepted only a few interviews but then they had to be carried out via faxes. He was also a genius at disrupting all the fashion codes.


KNOWBOTIC RESEARCH, The MacGhillie Saga

My recommendation to you would be to get this book if you’re interested in how questions of control&surveillance, identity&politics of the body are explored critically across a wide range of cultural manifestations. Not just in contemporary art but also in cinema, fashion, street culture, sexual fetishism, etc. Faceless manages to put a new, brave and thought-provoking spin on crucial topics that dominate our culture but still deserved to be discussed with intellectual rigour. And a bit of humour here and there.

Just a couple of the many creative works i discovered in the book:


Martin Backes, Pixelhead limited edition, 2010

Pixelhead is a full face mask acts as media camouflage, completely shielding the head to ensure that your face is not recognizable on photographs taken in public places, without securing permission. This piece is inspired by google street view and therefore bridges the gap between the real and virtual world. This simple piece of fabric masks individuals’ anonymity for the Internet age.


Sofie Groot Dengerink, © Google Privacy, 2011 © Google Maps and Sofie Groot Dengerink

Window curtains in The Netherlands are often either left wide open as a protestant statement that there is nothing to hide. Sofie Groot Dengerink‘s series of snapshots from Google Streetview lays bare the digital invasion of our (physical) privacy.


Jan Stradtmann, Garden of Eden, 2008

Shot furtively on Canary Wharf (London’s financial district) in September and October 2008, Jan Stradtmann’s photos reflect the tense atmosphere of the early days of the economic crisis. Everyday situations and gestures -cigarette breaks, phone calls or casual meetings between colleagues- get interpreted and framed as if they had a direct link to the crash.


Vermibus, In Absentia


Ben DeHaan, Uncured

Ben DeHaan’s melting portraits were created with a run-of-the-mill inkjet printers that use ultraviolet light to dry the ink printed on a page, which happens to be UV-sensitive. The ink dries — or cures — almost instantaneously. Unless you disable the UV light which is exactly what the artist did. He then photographed the prints as the ink was slowly dripping down the face of his subjects.


Simone C. Niquille, Here Be Faces, 2013

Pablo Garcia and Addie Wagenknecht, Webcam Venus, 2013


Caron Geary aka FERAL is KINKY, Frontal View No. 2 of White British Female, UK born-‘Feral’, London – Self Portrait, 2007

Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas

Phantom islands belong to history and myths at the same time. For centuries sometimes, geographers believed in the existence of a number of bogus small pieces of land in the middle of the ocean. They described their inhabitants, narrated their discovery and mapped their position until, eventually, these islands were proven not to exist. Some of these islands were purely fictitious, often invented by individuals in search of glory. Others emerged because of geographical errors, optical illusions or confusion with other natural entities such as icebergs, fog banks or large pumice rafts. But even the most fanciful of these islands left their marks on sailors’ imaginations, inspiring legends and counterfactual histories.


Andrew Pecker, Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, 2018


Andrew Pecker, Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, 2018


Map of Scandinavia from Abraham Ortelius’ atlas Theatre of the World, Antwerp, 1570

Andrew Pecker explores some of these islands in Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, an interactive map that charts the music and environmental sounds of mythical islands from around the globe.

The artist gave an acoustic presence to pieces of lands that never were. As you drift from one area of the world to another, the compositions change and evoke sounds that might or might not be entirely artificial. The result of the multimedia work is strangely seducing and intriguing. It blends 21st century technology with the fantasies of explorers from the age of maritime discoveries and conquests.

The multimedia artwork was commissioned by the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris for Fourth Worlds – Imaginary Ethnography in Experimental Music and Sound, an online exhibition that brings together sound artists, musicians and theorists who speculate and reflect on the discourse of “otherness” that often arise from the ethnographic (and colonial) urge of circumscribing cultures as separate and geographically localized entities.

I got in touch with the composer and performer for a quick Q&A:

Hi Andrew! I found it very interesting that, on the website of the work, many of the texts that describe the historical phantom islands contain a lot of visual elements. One of them has a “column rising in the middle”, another is inhabited by islanders with their cheekbones perforated, another by giant man-eating ants, etc. And of course many attempts to find and map properly these islands end up with a ‘no sighting’ conclusion. So what made you want to give a sonic presence to these islands? And, more generally, why this focus on historical phantom islands?

Yes, it’s funny that the two actions (their sighting and their inscription on maps) that are responsible for these non-existent places having existed in a certain sense are both visual. Because I work with sound, and more specifically because I’m interested in composing music that evokes or constructs plausible (yet unreal) places by synthetic means, it seemed obvious to pursue my fascination with the phenomena of phantom islands by giving them an audible dimension.

Initially, I learned about phantom islands from my partner, an ethnographer who taught on the topic in several art education projects. I was (and remain) fascinated by the fact that these phantom islands are not fictions in the conventional sense. Event though a few of them were invented by unscrupulous seafarers seeking to make a name for themselves (or just earn further commissions), most phantom islands were unintentional fictions – the results of the imprecise science of navigation, clouds, fog banks and icebergs being mistaken for land, and wishful thinking. And yet, these islands were in included on nautical charts and world maps, sometimes for hundreds of years. For the cartographers who drew them and the seafarers and laymen who studied them, they were as real as any other feature on the map and had real consequences for the people who searched for them, and frequently for the real people and places that were found instead. For example Davis Land, an island which was claimed to have been discovered by the pirate Edward Davis in 1687 off the west coast of South America. The Dutch West India Company dispatched three ships to the area in 1721 and though unable to find Davis Land, they stumble upon the previously unknown Easter Island. Their visit results in the death of about a dozen islanders and the wounding of many others.

And so, although non-real, these places remain irreducible artefacts of the early modern age. Something like hallucinations brought on by the high fever of European expansionism and colonialist ambitions.


Andrew Pecker, Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, 2018


Map of imaginary island of Frisland on the Arctic by Gerardus Mercator. First print 1595, this edition 1623 ‘s arctic map

How do you associate a historical phantom island with a particular sound? What guided the sound making process? The supposed location of the island? its history? its name?

It was mostly a process of matching musical fragments and sketches I had recorded over the last couple of years to the various islands according to what information I had about them and their location. I was interested in building up a network of related, sometimes overlapping, sound-worlds such that one would have the impression that the sounds of islands near one another share similar features and that the farther one travels from any given starting point on the map, the more dissimilar the sounds become. In effect, I wanted to add a parallel sound dimension of connections between the phantom islands that would mirror their own plausible yet impossible existence.

The crucial factor here is that these (non)places are presented and described within the context of the familiar map of our real world. That means that the listener’s/visitor’s prior familiarity (however vague it may be) with music from various parts of the world, as well as the one’s historical, geographic, and anthropological knowledge and/or assumptions comes into play in the imagination process. This quasi-collaboration between sound materials, text and listeners’ prior knowledge/beliefs (which always takes place anyway) is what I was trying to actively shape.

And where do these sounds come from since you couldn’t do any field recordings?

As mentioned above, what I’m interested in is composing music that evokes or constructs plausible places by synthetic means.

That is, I use electronic instruments to produce music with sounds that can be taken for insects, bird calls, wind, waves and other “natural” sound phenomenon as well as with elements that are reminiscent of ethnographic recordings (albeit of no particular culture). The sweet spot for me is when a piece I have made can be simultaneously heard as both a field recording and as completely composed, synthetic construct. There’s a nice correlation there with the existence / non-existence of the phantom islands themselves.

The Phantom Islands atlas was commissioned in the framework of Fourth Worlds – Imaginary Ethnography in Experimental Music and Sound, an online exhibition by Jeu de Paume that aims to question the discourse of “otherness” through speculation. Some of the questions that the show wants to address include “How does the( modern technology of field recording perpetuate a Eurocentric perspective of culture? Can sonic speculation destabilize cultural essentialisms or stimulate critical counter-memories?”

How did you approached this topic? How is this type question reflected in the sonic atlas?

In music, the idea of “otherness” comes into play when western music makes use of non-western elements – these can be sounds and instruments, but also rhythmic, melodic and harmonic structures. In popular forms, this was / is most often a matter of ornamentation whereby conventional musical statements are enriched with borrowed flavorings of exotic instruments.

This is what is generally called musical “exotica”, whereby the specificity of references made to non-western musics (and by extension, to the “other” to whom they belong) range between documentarian/ethnomusicological motivations of recreating maximal authenticity on the one hand to outright fabrications that originate entirely in the composer’s imagination.

There is of course lots of ground in between these two extremes where fantasy, musical practice and theory, and articulation mix in interesting ways. So it was against this backdrop that Phantom Islands was conceived. In essence, the project’s aim is to methodically exoticize non-existent places in order to make visible the process of exoticization itself. Trying to make productive the cognitive dissonance of obviously fictitious places (fictitious yet plausible enough to have been considered real at one time) the objects of an imaginary ethnography lets us hopefully see and hear how all exoticas are fictions.


Andrew Pekler, Tristes Tropiques performance in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Pavlo Shevchuk


Andrew Pekler, Tristes Tropiques performance in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Pavlo Shevchuk

One of your previous albums, Tristes Tropiques, is an album of “synthetic exotica, pseudo-ethnographic music and unreal field recordings”. I just read an interview with you in which you explain that a visual and spacial element is added to your performances of TT. For it, you used footage of various tropical flora Thailand. Are you planning to also perform Phantom Islands? And which images would you use then since the locations and existence of the islands has not been proved?

I’m kind of drawn to the “purity” of the idea of the project existing as a website only. At the same time, performing Phantom Islands could be an opportunity to try out some new (to me) formats. At the moment I am thinking about putting together something like a lecture-performance or a live radio play with some of the information on the islands read aloud and interspersed with musical improvisation based on the sounds I used for the website.

Thanks Andrew!

Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas was commissioned for the exhibition Fourth Worlds: Imaginary Ethnography in Music and Sound. Concept, sound and text by Andrew Pekler. Design and development by Flavio Gortana. Research by Kiwi Menrath. Produced with the Support of Jeu de Paume and DICRéAM, CNC.

Sonic Agency. Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance

Sonic Agency. Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance, by Brandon LaBelle.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher MIT Press writes: In a world dominated by the visual, could contemporary resistances be auditory? This timely and important book from Goldsmiths Press highlights sound’s invisible, disruptive, and affective qualities and asks whether the unseen nature of sound can support a political transformation. In Sonic Agency, Brandon LaBelle sets out to engage contemporary social and political crises by way of sonic thought and imagination. He divides sound’s functions into four figures of resistance—the invisible, the overheard, the itinerant, and the weak—and argues for their role in creating alternative “unlikely publics” in which to foster mutuality and dissent. He highlights existing sonic cultures and social initiatives that utilize or deploy sound and listening to address conflict, and points to their work as models for a wider movement. He considers issues of disappearance and hidden culture, nonviolence and noise, creole poetics, and networked life, aiming to unsettle traditional notions of the “space of appearance” as the condition for political action and survival.

During the Haitian Revolution, as the French soldiers sent by Bonaparte to reconquer the territory approached by boat, they could hear that Haitian slaves were singing a melody. They soon recognised it: La Marseillaise, the French revolutionary song, the patriotic call to fight against tyranny and foreign invasion. By making the famous anthem to freedom theirs, the Haitians defined themselves as citizens, not slaves. The French soldiers were confused, they realized they were the abhorred foreign oppressors of their own patriotic song.

The story ends well for the Haitians. The French army did attack them but the uprising led to the founding of a slave-free state that was ruled by non-whites and former captives. The Marseillaise sung by the people oppressed by the French was my favourite anecdote in Brandon LaBelle’s book. Each of the stories he conveys in Sonic Agency illustrates the agentive potentiality of sound, its power to exceed arenas of visibility, to interrupt the dominant order and support social and political struggles.

LaBelle identifies 4 mode of sonic agency, each with its own potential tactics and ways of building alternative frameworks of sociality:
– The invisible looks at how the unseen quality of sound might be mobilized as a basis for emancipatory practices.
– Anchored in the urban context, the overheard stems from interruptions and disruptions that encourage unplanned social encounters.
– The itinerant is dedicated to those who have lost their home either because of eviction or forced migration and who have, as a consequence lost their rights to the city. With the itinerant, lies another potential for acts of interference, estrangement and eventually maybe also a new appreciation of diversity (sonic or not).
– The Weak teaches us how to use fragility as a position of strength. It consists of passive resistance, peace prayers, hunger strikes, silent vigils, candle-lit marches, etc.

I must confess that Sonic Agency was not the book i was expecting. I was awaiting activist practices that use sound in a louder, more straightforward way. I was expecting more stories like the one of the Haitian rebels, more creative ways of getting your voice heard, more practical and easy to replicate examples of subverting the visible and leaving your mark in the public sphere.

Once i had absorbed the surprise of opening a book that wasn’t as obvious as i might have wanted, i ended up enjoying the journey. It’s a very theory-heavy journey but at least you’re in excellent company as LaBelle calls upon the expertise of Aimé Césaire, McLuhan, Bifo Berardi, Richard Sennett, Villém Flusser, Rastafarian culture, Edouard Glissant, Hannah Arendt, AbdouMaliq Simone and other thinkers to articulate how a sonic agency can support speech and action in a contemporary world dominated by forces intent on stifling them.

If you’re interested in what sound can do, this time with the most unpleasant ends in mind, i’d highly recommend another MIT Press book: Sonic Warfare. Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear by Steve Goodman.

Image on the homepage: Protesters taunt a line of military police during an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the Pentagon in 1967 (Bettmann/Getty Images), via Timeline.

Treebour. Do we pay trees fairly for the immaterial labour they perform for us?

Very few of us think of trees in terms of how hardworking they are. And yet, they work 24/7 and most of their labour is to our benefit. Trees (and any plant for that matter) perform all kinds of services for us. They shelter us against the elements, they help filter water and cool the air, soak up solar radiation, prevent soil erosion, provide living space for wildlife, can be turned into wood, some of them bear fruit and beautiful flowers, etc. They also perform all sorts of ‘cultural services’ for us: they help us unwind, inspire art, mental well-being and spiritual experiences. All of us, human and non-human alike, benefit from their presence around us.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Image courtesy of Marija Bozinovska Jones

Artist Marija Bozinovska Jones pays homage to this ‘treebour’ in her contribution to Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival, an exhibition at Furtherfield in London that explores an issue that deserves more attention from us: the blurring between work, well-being and play in an age of increasingly data-driven technologies.

With the sound piece, Bozinovska Jones investigates playbour from the perspective of trees and asks:

What would it mean to value this treebour like we value human labour? Trees’ careers last hundreds of years. They’re also natural co-operators and communicators, existing in symbiotic harmony with each other and other lifeforms. If they ever form a union and strike for back pay we’re in trouble.

If we were more aware of what trees do for us, would we treat them like we treat women doing an unfair share of household chores? Like the YouTubers creating free content, the factory and field workers exposed to hazardous chemicals and the other human workers who don’t get a decent wage for their efforts?

And if we valued the labour that trees perform for us, wouldn’t we be tempted to make them work harder? Would we try and extract profit from the “social” underground and air-borne networking of trees? Would they end up being the new victims of companies like Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon Mechanical Turk that promise autonomy and flexibility but make humans compete for each gig to drive down costs and reframe hobbies as potential revenue streams?

Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour promo video

The Treebour sound installation gives a human voice to three treebourers. Each of these anthropomorphised trees patiently describes their worth, highlighting the insidious logic of the gamification of all forms of life and work.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

Treebour is a very moving and smart sound piece. I don’t have a video or sound file of the beautiful text of the trees’ pleas but i got in touch with Marija Bozinovska Jones and asked her to tell us more about trees, anthropocentrism and all things playbour:

Hi Marija! Why did you decide to approach the playbour theme through trees? Looking at some of your previous works, i would have expected you to explore playbour through a piece that comments on playbour in virtual environment.

I tend to consider mimicry of biological in computational and social infrastructures.

The early stages of conceptualising the work was collective, during a workshop organised by curator Dani Admiss with Furtherfield. After its conclusion some of us participating were asked to produce work towards an exhibition.

In the course of the workshop we were discussing the unusual gallery location of Furtherfield – in the middle of a park; I am personally keen to exhibit in environments outside the white cube. The first idea was to work with couple of chosen trees surrounding the gallery onto which we would map contemporary socio-cultural values, for example through creating social media profiles for the trees, where they would compete against each other for attention, followers and likes.

Consequently, another workshop participant, Rob Gallagher who is a postdoctoral researcher in Gaming and Identity at King’s College, and myself developed individual monologues for three tree species found in Finsbury park to correspond to human characters. They were to communicate gamified aspects and corporatization of interpersonal relationships online. We likewise aimed to disneyfy the tree personas to appeal to the wide demographic of the audience that passes through the park and the gallery.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

The text of Treebour is amazing. It’s moving, very well researched and it made me appreciate trees even more. Perhaps, if we had a better understanding of what trees and other plants do for us we would be less keen on ‘artificializing’ our landscape with roads, airport extensions, shopping malls, etc. Do you think we need to instrumentalize nature more in order to recognise its value? Or are there dangers to that strategy?

Being an anthropocentric society, we have a tendency to translate other natural species’ communication to fit our logic rather than leaving it as something open which transcends our knowledge and perception.

Beyond our own nature, we often tend to take others’ for granted, as something to be consumed, exploited and conquered. In this respect we can learn from trees who live in symbiotic relationships with each other and other life forms.

We have organised ourselves in a way that we are dependent on concrete infrastructural architecture. In urban environments, the ratio of the built and the artificial is highly disproportionate with the natural.

Research studies observe how our wellbeing increases when surrounded with other natural species of flora and fauna, even with downscaled botanical versions such as plants in our living and working environments; the sole use of green colour in interior space is supposed to have calming properties for the human nervous system.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

I can imagine where you found the information for the techy-intellectual tree and the habitat tree. But what about the “relaxing tree”? How did you manage to make it sound so Gwyneth Paltrow-ish? Where does that particular jargon come from?

The character for the Relaxing (beech) tree was based on ASMR YouTubers. I asked my studio colleague to contribute with his voice for it as he has a very soothing voice.

The monologue was based on guided mindfulness instructions as something I am practicing myself as well as researching for work.

Treebour is clearly the outcome of a research on trees and the role they play in making our planet more liveable for us and other living species, etc. Is there anything you discovered during your research that truly amazed you?

The research was building on previous knowledge, for example of way in which trees communicate with each other as well as other life forms, phrased as ‘wood wide web’ and arboreal ARPANET. Rob came across some descriptive botanical jargon such as ‘vascular cambium’ and ‘carboniferous rhytidome‘.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

I love that you made Treebour a sound installation. It’s very suggestive and gives a sense of intimacy. But what were your motivations to do an art piece rather than a video animation or a performance for example? Why did you decide to give trees a voice?

For awhile now, our modes of communication is mediated through blackboxed screen interfaces predominantly employing the visual sense, followed by the haptic and the sonic. Over the past years, I have been examining human voice as a dimensional interface which is able to encapsulate affect. Due to our ability to detect and project emotions onto voice, it is often exploited by technocapitalism through disembodied AI. For example, intelligent personal assistants couple sleek consumer products with a sentient often female voice since we are genetically predisposed to react to a voice most similar to our primary caregiver’s, our mother. Anthropomorphised technologies are something I have been addressing through a proxy MBJ Wetware, a simulation of my voice via machine learning.

What shape does the concept of playbour play in your life as an artist?

Producing ’Treebour’ was a role-play itself.

With the plethora of social media with its potentials to promote work, lifestyle and disseminate opinions, playbour reaches new immaterial labour heights.

Thanks Marija!

Marija Bozinovska Jones’s Treebour is part of Playbour, an exhibition curated by Dani Admiss for Furtherfield Gallery in London. The show remains open until Sunday 19 Aug 2018.

Playbour is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).