Category Archives: activism

An interview with Swaantje Güntzel, the artist who throws plastic trash back into our faces

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, Offshore (detail), 2015, sound intervention, ARTweek Aabenraa, Denmark, Rosegarden

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

Swaantje Güntzel, MIKROPLASTIK II, 2016. Photo: Henriette Pogoda

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.

Swaantje Guntzel & Jan Philip Scheibe, PLASTISPHERE/Promenade Thessaloniki Performance, 17 March 2016, Thessaloniki, Greece

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.

Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Promenade, 2016, Thessaloniki. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

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 capitalism as well as us, humans. Of course, that’s probably not what is crossing these people’s mind immediately but I think it all comes together to create this strong reaction. And then on a more personal level, I think that a lot of people might be compensating for their daily lack of responsibility towards waste by acting in such a strong way and pretending they care. Because I throw garbage around in such an outrageous way, they suddenly take the role of the “clean up police”. It’s a bit like when you interview passersby on animal well-being, everyone will tell you that of course they’d be ready to pay a bit more if they were sure animals are treated better. The choices they make in their daily life, however, do not necessarily reflect what they say when they are interviewed in public. My work highlights this contradiction between what you do or say in public and what your private behaviour might be.

Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Galerius Palace Thessaloniki, 2016. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Do you think part of people’s anger can be explained by the fact that you look like a tourist on that touristic vehicle?

I don’t think so. I was acting in such an exaggerated way, throwing garbage around in broad daylight, in a popular area of the city and dressed in such an extravagant way. It was impossible to take me seriously. It was all staged to look like a performance or maybe an activist action to raise awareness around the waste problem.

Swaantje Güntzel, Portrait at Kaatsch. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Last year you collaborated with the German recycling company Schrott- und Metallhandel M. Kaatsch GmbH in Plochingen as part of the Art Festival DREHMOMENT of KulturRegion Stuttgart in order to follow the route taken by the recycled objects, looking in particular at “the physical and logistical effort required to keep raw materials in a closed cycle of recyclable materials.” I found it interesting that you seemed to have established some relationship with the people working in this recycling company. What role played the relationship you established with them? How long did you stay there by the way?

I produced the actual work in two weeks but the whole relationship started long before that, in January, when we had the first encounter. That’s when I was presented to the company and they had to decide whether or not they wanted to work with me. They were very afraid I would run around their company looking for problems in the way they work. On the one hand, their fear was understandable because so far I had only focused on the damages of consumerism and not on the solutions to it. It took them 3 months to think about it. And it took me a lunch and a lot of wine with the boss of the company to convince him to say yes to the collaboration. But the moment we started to work together, they were incredible. They opened every door for me, they let me do everything I had dreamt of.

The work with the excavator that you can see in the short movie was something I had dreamt of. I never thought they’d allowed me to do that because that would mean slowing down the work process, it would be complicated, require a lot of men power and they’d lose money. And yet, the moment I told them about my idea, they reacted very fast and made it happen.

During my research and over the course of these two weeks last summer when I tried to realise most of the works, I found it very easy to talk to everyone. Later in October, for the opening of the resulting show, I had a conversation with one of the people working there and I almost apologised for being this woman crawling everywhere on their working space, always in the way of the workers on this big scrapyard. But the worker said “No! Not at all! All the women who work here would never come on the scrapyard, they prefer to stay inside the offices but you looked so interested in our work, trying to understand, getting yourself dirty, etc. That was actually very flattering for us.” The people who are in charge of the place also understood the potential of this synergy between the artist and the company and how something completely new could emerge from it. I had warned them that I wanted total freedom, that they couldn’t interfere with the content (unless it was for technical reason) but we never had any situation of tension.

I saw the power of recycling our waste, of keeping the resources in this loop and not lose any of it. It’s the future. They always say that recycling is the 7th resource of the world. Recycling will become an essential resource. Without it, we’ll destroy the planet even sooner than expected.

For me it was a new experience. For once, everybody was so happy about my performances! Although in the end, I think that people getting angry and me being beaten up is part of the solution. It’s one of the puzzle pieces in trying to understand that we are on the wrong track.

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, 2018. Photo by Tobias Hübel

One of the works in the LOOPS series intrigued me. The triptych titled LOOPS / LH 150 E. Did the excavator create these marks?

Yes, you can see the process in the video.

My concept was that I wanted to visualise how much power is in the logistics and in the physical effort you need to keep resources in recycling loops. While doing my research on the scrapyard, I saw the company´s excavators picking up what seemed to be big bundles of steel wires that look like balls of wool but weight tons. The excavators grab these bundles and use them to move the trash from one side to the other. When they’ve finished the work, they use the bundles to clean the spot where they were working. When you see 3 or 4 of these excavators doing it at the same time, it looks like a ballet or a choreography. You can also sense the power. You feel the soil moving and shaking, the air getting very hot and the loud noise. It’s like you’re in a parallel world. I wanted to visualize these movements so I asked if i could drip these bundles into red paint, put the three steel plates on the ground and thus capture these moments.

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, setting the plates, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, steel wire 2, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, steel wire 1, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, finished plates, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

You hold a Masters Degree in Anthropology. How does that background inform and influence your artistic practice?

At the beginning, I didn’t think it would influence my practice. I was actually hiding that fact. When I started studying art, I was already older than the others and I was struggling to find my spot. Especially because I was working on ecological topics that no one really likes. In the first years, I had a hard time defining myself. After 5 or 7 years however, I started to realise that the way I look at the world, the way I work, the way I observe is so linked to my studies in Anthropology that I couldn’t deny this background anymore and that it played a huge part in my artistic practice.

Besides, I have this project series with my boyfriend Jan Philip Scheibe, who is also an artists, where we try and analyse with the instruments from contemporary art how the interaction between people and their surrounding landscape is still visible and how this defined their culture and understanding of nature. How these people trying to be nourished by the surrounding landscape have interacted with it over the course of the past several hundred years. These projects require a lot of research and I’m the one in charge of that before we actually start the work. My technique, my way of researching are linked to that understanding of the world as an anthropologist.

When I work on plastic pollution, I collaborate with many scientists, with marine biologists, with physicians, experts in acoustics, etc. Without this academic background, I would have hesitated a lot before before approaching them and asking them if they were open to collaborating with me.

Swaantje Güntzel, Stomach Contents, 2010. Photo: Swaantje Güntzel

Swaantje Güntzel, Box Set XL, 2018, plastics, wood, glass, 41,3 x 31,5 cm. Photo Tobias Hübel

Swaantje Güntzel, Cigarette lighter R, 2014. Photo by Anne Sundermann

How did you work with these other scientists? Do they play only a consulting role or a more active one?

It depends very much on the project. For example, I worked with marine biologist Dr. Cynthia Vanderlip on a series of projects in which she played an active role. She is the head of Kure Atoll Conservancy, a seabird sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean. She was one of the first scientists I approached in my artistic career because I needed items that had been swallowed by birds in the ocean. She works a lot with Laysan albatrosses that have ingested plastic objects and she agreed in 2009 to provide me with all the materials I needed. She collects the pieces found inside dead birds on that remote Atoll. Now she can’t go to the Atoll anymore but she still directs the team over there and asks them to keep on collecting the objects for me. She answers any question I might have. Her role is thus very active.

With other scientists, it’s more about getting answers to very specific questions.

Last year was the first time I dared to present my work in a scientific conference on microplastics. I had no idea if they would appreciate this kind of presentation or even if it made sense for them to see how artists are working on this topic. From the interested reactions I got after the presentation, it looks like it was the right thing to do.

You’ve worked on the topic of plastic pollution for many years now. How do you see the discussions evolving? It seems to me that on the one hand, awareness has been raised years ago. On the other hand, we’re not making much progress in controlling plastic waste, are we?

I started to work on that topic in a time when nobody really knew about plastic pollution or about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at all in Germany. There were a few scientists in the States who had just named the problem but there was nothing in terms in public awareness. I was so naive at the time. I thought that if I started making the problem visible, an understanding would grow and that over time we would take action. However, I could see that time was passing and that my work kept being labelled in curatorial texts or critical reviews as “raising awareness”. Last year, I started wondering how long we’d need to “raise awareness” before we decide to actually do something. Five years ago or so, people who are in charge started to advise the public on how we could change habits, use as little plastic as possible or put pressure on politicians and on the industry to see changes emerge. But we’ve been stuck in this same movement for such a long time. By now, I think that each of us is aware of the problem and we all agree that plastic doesn’t belong in the environment. And yet, not much has changed.

At the opening of my exhibitions, people view me as a kind of priest and confess their plastic sins to me. They would tell me that they understand the importance of my work, that it’s essential that someone makes the effort but then they’d try and explain me why they can’t make an effort themselves: it takes too much time and too much energy, it’s the industry that should act, people at the other end of the world do worse anyway, etc. Classic whataboutism that doesn’t help us move forward.

It’s the same with climate change, we know we have to do something and yet we stand there. We prefer to blame others, keep our heads in the sand and prolong our way of life.

Swaantje Güntzel, Blowback II, 2015. Photo by HC Gabelgaard

What keeps you motivated and sane? because sometimes when I read how turtles choke on plastic, how microplastics ends up in the food chain and more generally how biodiversity is dying and the climate is warming up, i despair and want to forget about all that.

You have to look at my biography to answer that one. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, a time characterised by what some like to call “eco-pessimism”. As a kid, I was traumatised by what we were doing to this planet. I was a little girl asking adults “Now that you know what we did to the environment, why don’t you change your behaviour?” And I would always get an answer which meaning can be summed up in: “As adults we screwed it up. Now it’s on you to find a solution and save the world.” I was old enough to take their words seriously and I was depressed about the challenge I had to face: saving the world pretty much on my own.

Today’s young people feel the same but at least they have social media to connect and combine their energy and knowledge and turn it into something as powerful as the Fridays for Future movement. Back then however, it wasn’t the case and it’s only recently that I discovered that many people my age had experienced the same depression and sense of helplessness. We did what we could of course. For example, going from door to door asking people to sign petitions against seal slaughtering or collecting money for the local pet shelter. But we felt alone and under so much pressure. At some point, I decided I would leave aside those topics for a while. I went abroad and studied anthropology. Over time however, I realised that both the environmental issues and art were so deep inside of me that I couldn´t ignore it anymore. I decided that art could help me put up with the pressure and feel like I was doing something. It’s not on the level of activism where you have to dedicate your energy to a cause every day, you have to fight and you live with the constant frustration.
Art would allow me to do something but it wouldn’t consume me as much. It’s the only way I found to deal with this global insanity without completely losing it myself.

Thanks Swaantje!

Eric D. Clark, Music producer, DJ. A collaboration between Ocean Now and Swaantje Güntzel’s artwork “Microplastics II” for the In Your Face project, part of Ocean Now campaign “Microplastics in Cosmetics and Cleaning Products” Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp

Swaantje Güntzel has a few exhibitions coming up: she’ll be participating to the Deep Sea group show opening at Ystads Konstmuseum, Sweden, on 1 June 2019. This Summer her work is part of the touring exhibition Examples to follow! Expeditions in aesthetics and sustainability in Erfurt, Germany. She is also preparing, together with Jan Philip Scheibe the work Preserved/Grünkohl opening at DA Kloster Gravenhorst, Germany on 12 July 2019. And of course, her collaboration with Ocean Now is currently taking the streets of Berlin to inform passersby about the urgent need to ban microplastics in cosmetics and cleaning products.

Superflex. We Are All in the Same Boat

SUPERFLEX. We Are All in the Same Boat, with texts by curator Jacob Fabricius, urban geographer Stephanie Wakefield, curator Gean Moreno, Professor of Latin American Studies George Yudice and science-fiction writer Mark von Schlegell. Published by Hatje Cantz.

On amazon USA and UK.

Summary of the book: The critically-acclaimed Danish artist group SUPERFLEX, founded in 1993 by Jakob Fenger (b. 1968), Bjørnstjerne Christiansen (b. 1969), and Rasmus Nielsen (b. 1969), create humorous and playfully subversive installations and films that deal with financial crisis, corruption, migration, and the possible consequences of global warming. The artists describe their practice as the provision of “tools” that affect or influence social or economic contexts, and often root their projects in particular local situations, inviting the participation of viewers. Their work poses questions of political, economic, and environmental behavior and responsibility. This catalogue accompanies the group’s first major museum survey in the United States and highlights video, sculpture, and installation works relevant to the history, present, and future of cities like Miami, poised on the leading edge of pressing issues such as climate change and immigration.

SUPERFLEX, Flooded McDonald’s, 2008

I saw SUPERFLEX’s Flooded McDonald’s many years ago. The film is set inside the life-size replica of a deserted McDonald´s fastfood gradually flooding with water. At first, the idea sounded funny. But as water was rising so was the tension. The film heralded a time when nothing, perhaps not even the most brutal forms of capitalism, would be able to interrupt the effects of climate change.

It was 2008 and the film was not only premonitory, it was also pure SUPERFLEX. It weaved together darkness and the humour, pop culture and environmental anguish, capitalism and provocation, etc.

Over time, the artists have realized bold works that confront some of modern society’s most unsavoury aspects with free goods, free beers, resistance to social control, calls for solidarity and of course tools! They are one of the very few artists whose works you can encounter in fancy art museums, in agricultural areas, in ordinary commercial shops, in the street or in a Turkish restaurant.

SUPERFLEX, Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes, 2002

SUPERFLEX. We Are All in the Same Boat is the publication that accompanies the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College (MOAD) in Miami.

It’s not a catalogue. That would be too boring for SUPERFLEX. It’s a little volume that opens on pages and pages printed in blue and white. The kind of blue you associate with Miami. The kind of blue of the water you imagine will one day wipe Florida off the map if we continue to respond to environmental urgency with indifference and inefficient measures. The pages are printed with photo documentation of SUPERFLEX works. The essays don’t start before page 143. They are worth the wait.

Professor of Latin American Studies George Yudice pens a fascinating essay that places SUPERFLEX’s work in the context of the city of Miami. As you read his text (and the ones of the other contributors) you realize why Miami is the perfect setting for a SUPERFLEX exhibition. The city presents many of the problems that characterize our times: immigration, tax havens, inequality, gentrification, money laundering, climate change, narcotraffic, etc. Anything you can find in big cities seem to grow in an exacerbated, almost vexing, way under the Miami sun.

Urban geographer Stephanie Wakefield and curator Gean Moreno explore a contemporary art economy in which artworks are regarded as a commodity. They posit that the tools that SUPERFLEX proposes have the potential to open up new spaces of possibilities: they can be used as incitements, provocations, gift and instruments to fight against forms of enslavement.

Science-fiction writer Mark von Schlegell gives us a glimpse of one of the future versions of Miami. We’re in 2099, the main protagonist of his short-story lives on a houseboat in Miami, an independent entity cut from mainland USA by sea rise. Against all odds and floods, the city has managed to to reinvent itself and keep its hedonistic lifestyle. Adaptation to the new aquatic condition of the city are shrewd, ecological (if that’s still a concept in 2099) but, as undersea wedding chapels linked to human trafficking demonstrate, the new version of Miami has lost nothing of its dark edge.

If you love SUPERFLEX’s work as much as i do and you’re curious about life on a planet that’s lost most of its coastline but none of its resourcefulness then you might enjoy this little publication.

Here’s a a handful of works from SUPERFLEX:

SUPERFLEX, Hospital Equipment, 2014. Photo: Mr. Ali Shahin

Hospital Equipment is a piece of “readymade upside-down.” The artist sourced and delivered operating theatre equipment to hospitals in conflict areas. The surgical equipment is first displayed as installation in a gallery. When the exhibition ends, the equipment is shipped directly to a selected hospital in a conflict zone to be used as potentially lifesaving medical instrument by doctors and nurses, rather than works of art to be contemplated. The photographic documentation of the installation remains with the collector who purchased the work. The first equipment was sent to a hospital in Gaza. The second one to a hospital in the western Syrian city of Salamiyah.

SUPERFLEX, Experience climate change as a Cockroach, Copenhagen, 2009. Graphic design by Rasmus Koch Studio

As part of the official cultural program in connection with the UN Global Climate Summit in Copenhagen 2009, SUPERFLEX offered a group session in which participants were hypnotized in order to perceive the climate change as cockroach. Five more sessions were planned to happen on different locations concerning different animals.

SUPERFLEX, The Fermentation Act, 2016. Photo: Keizo Kioku. Courtesy: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

SUPERFLEX, The Fermentation Act, 2016. Photo: Keizo Kioku. Courtesy: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

Water is drawn from the air in the exhibition space, collected and heated with tea. The tea is then fermented with sugar the kombucha fungus. After the fermentation process, the liquid is poured into glass jars and stored on shelves. Depending on the type of tea used, the colours and flavours vary and create a museum of colourful teas produced from human body perspiration.

SUPERFLEX, Free Shop (Family Mart, Tokyo), 2003

Free Shop takes place in an ordinary shop, anything purchased in the shop by any given customer, on the days of the performance, is free of charge. Shoppers are not made aware of the “promotion” until they arrive at the till. Free Shop has been held in Germany, Japan, Poland, Denmark and Norway.

SUPERFLEX, Today we do not use the word ‘Dollars’, 2009

A contract was established between the artists and an Auckland based branch of the ANZ bank that required any staff member to pay one dollar to their staff social fund every time she or he used the word “dollar”. The contract, signed by the bank manager and SUPERFLEX, was printed, framed and displayed in the staff room for the duration of the day.

SUPERFLEX, Kwassa Kwassa (Still image from the film), 2015

SUPERFLEX, Power Toilets / UN (A copy of the toilets from the United Nations Security Council headquarters, New York installed in Park van Luna, Heerhugowaard for public use), 2010. Photo: Superflex

SUPERFLEX, We Are All In The Same Boat, 2018

The book is co-published by the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College (MOAD) which is running SUPERFLEX: We Are All in the Same Boat, a survey of the artists’ work that you can visit until 21 April 2019 if you’re lucky enough to be in the neighbourhood.

Cutting through the ‘smart’ walls and fences of Fortress Europe

Recent European immigration policies seem to be mostly dedicated to making external borders as impenetrable as possible, through the hardening of the conditions of entry and, most notably since the 2015 refugee panic, through naval operations in the Mediterranean and the erection of fences and walls. The numbers of migrants reaching European shores in search of asylum have dropped sharply over the past couple of years but the desire to deny them a chance to seek asylum is still fueling the xenophobic rants of far-right politicians like Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini.

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE at Bruthaus Gallery, 2019

Dani Ploeger, Still from Border Operation, 2018-19, HD video, 3′. Documentation of action at Hungarian border fence

Artist Dani Ploeger has been looking at the fences recently built to toughen “Fortress Europe.” In particular the ones that use heat and movement sensors, sophisticated cameras and other so-called ‘smart’ technologies to shut off “illegal immigrants.” The hi-tech terminology used to describe theses fences obscure their inherent violence. Moreover, Ploeger writes, “their framing as supposedly clean and precise technologies is symptomatic of a broader cultural practice that uses narratives of technologization to justify means of violence” (think of the military drones and their supposedly surgical precision).

Last December, the artist traveled to the fortified border fence that Hungary had raised along its southern border with Serbia to keep out migrants and asylum seekers. The barbed-wire is capable of delivering electric shocks and is equipped with heat sensors, cameras and loudspeakers that shout inhospitable messages in several languages.

Once at the border fence, Ploeger cut off and ran away with a piece of razor wire from the border fence. This was a daring action: damaging the border fence is a criminal offence under Hungarian law.

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #1 (sensors). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #1 (sensors). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Ploeger recently exhibited that piece of fence as well as a series of related works at Bruthaus Gallery in Belgium. His SMART FENCE project uses old and new media, from celluloid film to augmented reality, to explore the way we delegate our responsibility towards asylum-seekers to these tech-enhanced structures. Along the way, the artist also attempts to deconstruct the techno-ideologies that are often inscribed in these technologies of control and exclusion.

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

The exhibition at Bruthaus Gallery is sadly over but i got in touch with the artist a couple of weeks ago to know more about SMART FENCE:

Hi Dani! I often have the feeling that we are a bit hypocritical in Europe, at least in the areas that are not in close proximity to these new borders. We point the finger at the US-Mexico wall and turn a bind eye at our own manifestations of intolerance and inhospitality. Do you have any idea about how much the European public is concerned by these European border fences?

I was struck by how many visitors of the exhibition seemed to know very little to nothing about the border fences that have been erected around the EU in recent years, especially considering how much attention the Hungarian border project has received in the media. I wonder whether this is because many just don’t engage much with international news reports or if they forget news events quickly due to the constant bombardment with spectacular and shocking information in networked culture (Paul Virilio discusses this latter phenomenon in his book The Administration of Fear, 2012). Either way, I didn’t get the impression that many people assess the current discussions around the US-Mexico wall in relation to recent border reinforcement projects in the EU. This impression is just based on anecdotal experiences in my direct surroundings though. I don’t really know about ‘the European public’ in general, if such thing exists.
Possibly more disturbing than the finger pointing towards the US, I find the recurring suggestion that the Hungarian border fence would merely be a manifestation of the backwards politics of Victor Orban’s nationalist-conservative government and hence in essence actually be a very ‘un-European’ project. This perspective ignores that Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is also active at the Hungarian border fence and that Greece, Spain and Latvia, among others, have built or are building similar fences, although these have not received as much media attention. In the end, these fences are quite convenient to many governments across the EU that want to restrict immigration.

Dani Ploeger, Border Operation, 2018-19. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

What is amusing in the video Border Operation is that you’re stealing a piece of razor wire and you’re doing in broad day light and don’t seem to be in great hurry, even when the car with the security officers arrives. Did you know what you were risking? And do you think that it would have been ok because you’re an artist so you have some licence? 

Interesting you see it like that. What I found somewhat funny is the indecisive and confused behaviour of the border patrol officers after I have left and they are just standing around, unable to do anything substantial because they are stuck behind their own fence. While I was at the fence, I was actually scared shitless, especially when the alarm loudspeakers switched on and the patrol car arrived, all within one minute from when I first touched the fence. My glove was stuck in the bit of razor wire I was trying to cut off though, and I was really quite determined not to go home empty handed, so that kept me a few seconds longer after they arrived. One of the guards was only about a metre and a half away on the other side of the fence though, and yelling at me, so I was close to leaving my glove behind and running off.

I had deliberately approached the fence slowly and casually before starting to cut in order not to make my intentions obvious right away. I figured that if I would run towards the fence through the 300 meters of open field next to it the video surveillance observers would be alarmed right away. I had planned and timed the action carefully the day before, based on an examination of the area around the fence, the frequency of the patrols and a little practice with my bolt cutter. My camera was attached upside down in a tree and my packaging material for the wire, first aid kit and various other materials were hidden behind the ruin of a house across the field. I did my best to stay cool during the action and to cut slowly and precisely without panicking. Nevertheless, I was so excited that I messed up and cut through a wrong bit at first (cutting concertina razor wire somehow isn’t as simple as it appears), struggled to get through the steel wire with my tiny cutter, and then I was surprised by how quickly the guards arrived. They seemed to come from nowhere.

A tricky thing was that the fence stands a short distance inside Hungarian territory, which means that border patrol officers may use pepper spray or fire rubber bullets at people who are messing with the fence from the outside. They can also operate on the outside if they go out through a gate about 100 meters from where I was. Therefore, I went away from the fence as quickly as possible once I got my bit of wire, and ran back to Serbian soil. In Serbia, I still had to walk for about half an hour to reach the main road though, partly through open fields. I hadn’t been able to find out through my contacts at the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration if the Hungarian border force is in contact with Serbian police, so this walk wasn’t very relaxing either. I had identified a few hide-outs along the way in case police would show up.

Damaging the border fence has been criminalized in Hungary in 2015, so I guess that in Hungary I would now be a fugitive criminal. Getting caught would probably have gotten me into some serious trouble and I don’t think saying that I’m an artist would have convinced them to just let me go.

In the end, I don’t believe they would push for a serious prison sentence or something like that though, both because I can’t imagine they’d find a single person action relevant enough and because it would lead to tensions with other EU countries. So rather than me being an artist I think my EU passport would have given me some leeway.

I actually think I was mainly scared to get a serious beating, or just in general to get caught by an unknown authority for doing something illegal. This is also where one of the most relevant aspects of doing this action lies for me.

When I watched video reportages about migrants cutting holes in the fence and running across, sometimes with entire families including small children, it hadn’t looked that scary to me. Thinking about what extreme challenges and dangers these people would have encountered on their journeys towards this border, getting rid of a bit of barbed wire and running across a few meters of border strip, with apparently the only serious risk being sent back, somehow seemed to be among the lesser challenges.

Considering how scared I was myself while merely stealing a bit of wire from this fence – not even trying to cross – makes apparent the extreme contrast between the relatively fear- and threat-free life many (Western) Europeans like myself are used to in comparison with the environments many migrants navigate. In this context, the lighthearted way in which some people and media speak of the supposedly gratuitous motivations of migrants traveling to Europe appears ridiculous: this is not a journey one would choose to undertake if the living conditions in the home country would be bearable.

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

I was very interested in the extract in the press material that mentions the violence that is enacted on humans and non-human animals. Could you explain how non-human animals suffer from the erection of these ‘smart fences’? 

Many animals, such as red deer, bears and wolves, used to have their grazing, hunting and migration routes through parts of EU borders that have now become impenetrable. The issue is not only that animals are no longer able to cross, but also that razor wire, which is the main component of the border fences throughout, is designed to deter humans. It is explicitly not intended for use against animals, because, unlike traditional barbed wire, they easily get stuck in it and die.

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #2 (wire). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #2 (wire). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

The AR technology used in European Studies #2 (wire) “was developed in collaboration with the AURORA project at the University of Applied Sciences Berlin with support from the European Union.” Isn’t it a bit ironic that the EU would contribute to a project that openly questions the management of its borders? Was everyone comfortable with the idea that you used EU money to criticise border control? 

This irony is important to me. The EU has an extensive and complex bureaucracy that regulates and manages funding for research, arts and other things. I see this as an important reason why there usually isn’t too much worrying among researchers or art producers about policy-critical work as part of funded research or art projects, as long as the work adheres to the immediate rules and regulations for the management of the grant. I.e. if there isn’t a written rule that says ‘your research may not criticize EU policies’ all is fine, because grant holders will be monitored and assessed by peers and bureaucrats, rather than politicians or other people with significant policy making power. This leaves some space to use funding for things that might go against the immediate interests of the Union.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate this critical or subversive potential though. In the end, actions like mine are usually only possible a long way down in the ‘funding-hierarchy’. My AR app was a tiny sub-project in the context of a large EU-funded research project. This larger project, the design and management of which I am not involved in, was the outcome of a successful bid under the “Strengthening the innovation potential in culture” scheme of the European Fund for Regional Development. As the title of the scheme already suggests, research projects will only be funded if their design demonstrates detailed and far-going endorsement of the economic-growth-driven interests that form an important aspect of the European Union’s raison d’être.

So I’d actually say that, in the end, the true irony of the seemingly subversive use of EU funding for my project primarily concerns the way in which a lot of critical artwork, including my own, is intertwined with government support structures for research and art that are increasingly driven by clearly defined economic objectives. These objectives are also reflected in restrictive migration policies, which are oftentimes based on prioritizing cutting costs over humanitarian considerations.

To what extent does the ‘successful artist’ of a neo-liberal cultural landscape (i.e. the one who gets access to funding and is exposed at funded events and venues) become complicit in the economy-cultural complex that ultimately shares responsibility for the excesses of violence and neo-colonial policies on and beyond the borders of the EU or, more generally, the Global North?

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier, detail (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

These ‘smart’ technologies of ‘defense’ and the way they function elude visual representation. They make migration almost abstract. Your works, on the other hand, make their violence almost palpable. Have you not been tempted at any point to make the connection between the human and non-human animals who suffer from the deployment of these technologies more obvious and maybe also more (easily) emotional by adding the presence of migrants trying to go through them?

Many journalists and artists have done work that focuses directly on the human suffering in the context of these structures (suffering of non-human animals not so much). This work is very important, among others to counter the tendency to imagine migration as some kind of abstract phenomenon as you point out. But I think there are also aspects of the current problematics around migration that cannot be addressed adequately by this work, and which require different approaches.

Firstly, when the attention is focused on representations of migrants trying to cross the fence, architectural and technological aspects tend to move to the background. This is understandable and desirable – thank god engagement with human experience prevails over barbed wire and motion detectors – but it also means that the significant role of narratives and applications of technology in the ‘management’ of migration and territorial control remain under-examined.

Secondly, as I already mentioned above, I often find that when watching video and photo representations of migrants trying to break through these border fences the places and situations paradoxically seem a lot less threatening and violent than they actually are experienced in a material encounter. The material presence and digital close-up views of razor wire and the quasi-nostalgic analogue photographs of sensor installations in my work do by no means give access to the experience of encountering the border fence as a migrant. But I do hope that they offer an additional way to engage with the violent implications of the desire for closed borders, an engagement that operates more through a sense of haptic visuality, rather than emotional narratives.

Any upcoming project or field of research you’d like to share with us?

I see the work I presented at Bruthaus Gallery as the beginning of a longer project that looks into borders, technologies and their narratives, so I will probably make more work around this theme over the next year or so. In addition to the video I exhibited now, I made a 3D video recording of the action at the Hungarian border from first-person perspective with two action cams that were attached to my forehead. I will use this footage to make a work for VR headset which will engage more with the experience of stress and fear that I mentioned in response to your earlier question. Another thing I am working on at the moment is an AR app for public space. When you point your device at a replica of a sign from the border fence that reads “CAUTION: Electric fence” the app will construct a life-size 3D model of the border fence around this, so you are standing right next to it.

Later in the year, I will make a new work for a group exhibition at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin, titled Weapons of Art. For this, I am planning to travel to another part of the EU to look for fencing, but I don’t want to say anything more about that yet.

Thanks Dani!

Previous works by Dani Ploeger: e-waste, porn, ecology & warfare. An interview with Dani Ploeger and Global control, macho technology and the Krampus. Notes from the RIXC Open Fields conference.
See also: The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum seeking process in Europe, Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance and Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 2. The conference.

PROSPEKT. Organising information is never innocent

A VR-essay and performance by artist and researcher Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT draws disturbing and pertinent parallels between colonialist (and neo-colonialist) bio-prospecting practices and Google’s attempt to get their hands on the world’s knowledge in order to amass, organize and turn it into economically valuable resources.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

The setting for the performance is, very appropriately, the botanical garden in Gothenburg, Sweden. While botanical gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries housed mainly medicinal plants, their 18th and 19th century heirs were dedicated to displaying and labeling the exotic and sometimes economically valuable plant trophies discovered in European colonies and other distant lands. Like many Natural History and Ethnology museums on the old continent today, these botanical gardens are remnants of a colonial period impulse that combines economic and scientific ambitions. They stand testament to the extraction and accumulation needed to produce encyclopaedic projects that aided the organisation of the world. The colonial gaze was determined to scan the surface looking for specimens for study, fixing them as objects out of time and out of place, in the same way that digital documents offer imagings of the world at a distance via screens. This is a prospecting gaze – a wandering ogle that examines, sorts and determines meaning and value.

PROSPEKT is borrowing this marshaling gaze to guide its audience through an exhibition and remind them that organising information is never innocent. We shouldn’t trust a Silicon Valley giant with its archiving, exhibiting and mapping.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Poster of PROSPEKT. Design by Jaime Ruelas

Unfortunately, i couldn’t make it to Gothenburg to attend the performance but i contacted Geraldine Juárez to know more about the performance and the motivations behind it:

Hi Geraldine! Your essay “Intercolonial Technogalactic” documents a fascinating experience you made to ‘turn the techno-colonial archive against itself.’ Could you tell us about the experiment and what it showed?

This was the first of three texts I wrote about the Google Cultural Institute. It was originally written as a companion text for a work commissioned by Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin for the exhibition 125,660 Specimens of Natural History, which focused on colonial natural history collections and the environmental transformations they produced. I used Alfred Russel Wallace, who collected a massive amount of specimens from the Malay Archipelago and brought them to European museums, as an excuse to discuss the colonial impulse manifested in the Google Cultural Institute and their on-going accumulation of “assets” (in googlespeak) from public-funded museums around the world.

I explored and messed around with the interface and content of the Google Cultural Institute for a while and eventually I realised that for being such an ambitious project about “the world’s art and culture,” it was quite weird that there was no information about the history of such a culturally relevant corporation as Google. So I wanted to assemble that history. The text scrolls the interface while searching for its origins as well as the political-economical context in which this “cultural project” has expanded. “Fathers of the Internet” by Femke Selting and the essay “Powered by Google” by Dan Schiller and Shinjoung Yeo helped me get started and locate the first manifestation of the cultural agenda of Google in a press conference in the National Museum of Iraq and the artificial association with Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum, billed by Google as “Google on paper”.

The expansion of the Google Cultural Institute coincided with their legal problems in Europe, as a spokesperson said to the Financial Times in 2012: “We had publishers who were suing us in France and we needed to reach out and invest in Europe, and invest in European culture, in order to change that perception and establish constructive working relations”. A year later, the Google Cultural Institute, the performative institution serving as an umbrella for the Google Arts & Culture and The Lab, opened in Paris in 2013.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

At first sight, the ambition of the Google Cultural Institute “to disrupt the gatekeepers of world cultures by offering free digitisation and distribution  services to memory institutions worldwide” sounds like a generous and commendable endeavour. Why should we be concerned about it? Why is organising information “never innocent”?

Well, Google has proved that organising the world’s information and make it available to everyone is a business model, not a commendable endeavour.

Google, like all of Silicon Valley corporate culture, sees public services as inefficient infrastructures that they need to make more efficient. So their engineers often invent non-solutions to imaginary problems and present them as “innovations” while wrecking cities, labour laws, privacy, and what is left of democracy and its institutions.

In the specific “partnership” between Google Cultural Institute and public memory institutions, the experience of Google Books should be – but is not – more than enough. It is interesting that while losing interest in libraries and their texts (in part because of the copyright lawsuits against their digitisation activities), Google turned their scanning power and attention onto museums, mostly in aggregating images representing their collections.

This happens under a political and economic environment were cultural policy is reduced to tourism and entertainment, budgets are tied to attendance metrics and similar, with likes and #artselfies on social media constituting part of these metrics, which creates a pressure and a very uncritical “cultural heritage plus digitisation” solution, therefore making it difficult for our weak institutions to reject the offering of the Google Cultural Institute. Even if there is no visible paywall, every image that enters the Google Arts & Culture database is a new asset in a walled garden that – much like all of the Alphabet’s infrastructure and services – is quite inscrutable. In addition, the agreements about these public-private partnerships are not public.

“Organising information is never innocent” means that organising information is always intentional. Amit Sood, the director of the Google Cultural Institute, affirms that a project of this scale and ambition just started casually as a 20% project of “googlers” (meaning workers in googlespeak) who were passionate about art and culture. But I think it is more complicated and has to do with the emergence of the museum as a new kind of relation between people and the state. So in this sense, I think the cultural agenda of Alphabet should be seen as part of this post-democratic condition where information monopolies are increasingly acting like states.

Some other of the many aspects that I found problematic, and conservative like most tech disruption, is the way in which the Google Culture Institute glorifies the past and reproduces the hierarchies of an exhausted European canon. The gigapixel canon of Google basically corresponds to European “high culture” and its masterpieces, led of course by Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Even the way in which their offices in France are described glorify the cliché version of France. Silicon Valley “tech” culture is very ahistorical but when it comes to their understanding of european culture, it seems that they are very into a high-resolution version of the past and its clichés.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Why did you chose to work with Oculus go? What makes the headset and its technology significant in the context of PROSPEKT? 

PROSPEKT is a “prospect view”, a viewpoint, a wandering ogle that examines, sorts and determines meaning and value. The collection of objects in the exhibition are documents that locate the Google Arts & Culture platform within the history of encyclopaedic projects, its spatial economy and the organisation of “the world-as-an-exhibition” – a concept found in the the work of Derek Gregory about the data-set as a discursive practice and in relation to the spectacular “set-up” of the-world-as-an-exhibition explained by Timothy Mitchell.

Viewing and display techniques, such as 19th century World Exhibitions, botanical gardens and its greenhouses, dioramas, panoramas, archives such as Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum, mapping technologies like the Streetview car, and VR-headsets offering exploratory experiences of scanned surfaces, are all part of a very continuing tradition of gathering, collecting and organising in order to fix objects out of time and out of place in the form of documents. The use of the Oculus in PROSPEKT is the way in which the technical gaze can be performed and do what the prospect view does: explore, scan the surface, seek detail, organise and this time, presenting the world-as-an-endless-digital-exhibition.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

I also wonder how the performance was prepared: for example did the performer rehearse with you beforehand to make sure the quotes and images would appear in a certain order and that no content was neglected? Or was it a discovery for her?

The text in the space was placed based on the script, the curatorial work of Bhavisha and input from Josefina Björk, the performer. The rehearsals were hard because neither Josefina nor I had worked with VR before, never mind trying to come to an understanding of how to perform the essay spatially. She rehearsed with the text already placed and I modified it based on her requests. The work concentrated in familiarising with the space, how to move around, in which order and yes, how to not miss the important parts. During the rehearsals, we realised the text acted as a prompter too so Josefina suggested adding some signs too. These signs (*,**,//) helped her to know, for example, when to look up to read from the sky, when to emphasize something and when to take off the headset (as not all of the performance is with the VR-headset), so these signs acted as a cue for those actions too.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

And during the performance, did the performer and the public move around the botanical garden? Was there any logic in these movements?

The audience gathered in the the main area of the greenhouse, the Tropical House, where there was a short introduction. After, PROSPEKT guided the audience to the Southern Hemisphere, where the audience took their seats and the performance started. The audience viewed the virtual exhibition through a screen with the feed of PROSPEKT’s gaze. The reason why there is an intro is to establish the greenhouse as the actual artificial and immersive environment containing the performance.

From the screen captures of the VR images, all sorts of quotes emerge: “it was just like an ambulance following a tank”, “there was a time when data was big data and big business”, “Data like plants are taken from the surface”, “capitalism is just a way of organising nature”, etc. Where do these sentences come from? 

All of the text in the space is from the script, which is a remediation of the essays I wrote before and some new interest in the relation with bio-prospecting and its evolution on data-prospecting. I didn’t want to separate the texts that shaped the script from the VR exhibition, but to piece them together in a spatial form.

The text is visible because it is meant to be read by the performer, not learned or recited by memory. In this way, it can be read by anyone else who wants to perform it. Potentially, a user could also navigate and read the essay if I distribute PROSPEKT as an “experience” (but I am not really interested in individual or multi-user consumption of VR).

Most of the text in the sky are “quotes” and most of the text on the floor is from the script. Although in some cases there is some of my text in the sky too because it just made sense for the navigation of the space by the performer (e.g., “data like plants are taken from the surface”) or because it was very important!

The sentences you note are from different texts such as Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World by Londa Schiebinger, Capitalism in the Web of Life by Jason W. Moore and a blog post by Dario Gamboni titled ‘World Heritage: Shield or Target?’

 Are there strategies we could adopt to resist this monopolisation of knowledge and culture?

There is always going to be a struggle for the monopolisation of resources. This is what politics is about. When it comes to the power that Google, including its cultural philanthropy, exerts over society and its institutions, maybe we need to stop resisting and struggle against it more actively.

Specifically, the so-called public “GLAM” industry – and I want to emphasize the public aspect as in publicly funded – needs some imagination and to stop being impressed with the digitisation fantasies that the Google Cultural Institute offers them in the form of gigapixels, content-management tools and gadgetry and focus a lot more on context, the one thing that the Google Arts and Culture platform can’t aggregate.

I also want to be clear that digitising images, aggregating them in a platform and framing them with “stories” is not “bad” because Google does it. The problem is that it is one of the most powerful corporations on Earth, the ruling class needs to monopolise knowledge to produce and maintain power, and by institutionalising information and related gathering practices they are able to dominate the ways in which images of the world are produced, classified, observed and understood.

For instance, Google did this exhibition called Digital Revolution (you can hire it from Barbican) that features the history of digital art according to Google, but as Rasmus Fleischer pointed out in his review, this is also a show about the absence of Google in the “history” they are exhibiting. If the history of Google is not featured in their own cultural platform and exhibitions, and if the managers of institutions aren’t making an effort to reflect on the political and economic context in which the cultural agenda of Alphabet Inc. has emerged, institutional critique is still a good format to reveal the dynamics consolidating the lack of plurality in platforms, protocols and services where culture circulates. The idea that searching and scrolling decontextualized high-resolution images means “access” is ludicrous.

Could you tell us something about the team that worked with you to develop the project?

I wrote the script and Bhavisha Panchia did the exhibition design of the 3D space based on my script and the related documents and objects on it. She also was in charge of all mediation (like for the contribution we made for the Monoskop Exhibition Library), the curatorial texts and she made sure I met the team deadlines! I modelled the 3D space and displays following her indications. Eva Papamargariti did the additional modelling of plants and palms.

After everything was assembled in Unity and packaged for VR, I started rehearsing the performance with Josefina Björk. She gave me input on the text so there were a lot of changes in the positioning to make it easier for her to read in relation to “the order” of exploring the exhibition. We also worked to avoid directions that produced theatrics and intentionally allowed space for improvisation as the script was not really a play. She helped me with lighting as she is also a very good set designer and we worked together on her wardrobe. Jaime Ruelas made the poster illustration. And Friedrich Kirschner helped me a lot with technical questions to find my way in Unity to the Oculus Go.

Are there any plans to show the performance in other locations? And would that require adapting the content or unfolding of the performance?

Bhavisha and me are working confirming more presentations, in addition to one presentation in Skogen during spring. About adaptation of the work, a small bit of the introduction needs to be adapted according to the venue. The site-specificity of the greenhouse in Botaniska was the ideal as it offered the perfect combination of nature, artifice and glass casing I need, but for instance in Skogen there will be some scenography and panoramic video.

Thanks Geraldine!

On 6 – 31 May 2019, Geraldine Juárez will be heading the Future Landscapes workshop together with Anrick Bregman at the School of Machines, Making and Make-Believe at the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway.

Beautiful Rising. Creative Resistance from the Global South

Beautiful Rising. Creative Resistance from the Global South, edited by Juman Abujbara, Andrew Boyd, Dave Mitchell, and Marcel Taminato.

It’s on amazon UK and USA.

Publisher OR books writes: In the struggle for freedom and justice, organizers and activists have often turned to art, creativity, and humor. In this follow-up to the bestselling Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, Beautiful Rising showcases some of the most innovative tactics used in struggles against autocracy and austerity across the Global South.

Based on face-to-face jam sessions held in Yangon, Amman, Harare, Dhaka, Kampala and Oaxaca, Beautiful Rising includes stories of the Ugandan organizers who smuggled two yellow-painted pigs into parliament to protest corruption; the Burmese students’ 360-mile long march against undemocratic and overly centralized education reforms; the Lebanese “honk at parliament” campaign against politicians who had clung to power long after their term had expired; and much more.

Now, in one remarkable book, you can find the collective wisdom of more than a hundred grassroots organizers from five continents. It’s everything you need for a DIY uprising of your own.

Zapatista Caravan, Chiapas and Mexico City, Mexico, 1994-1996

I keep on reviewing books about art and activism. The topic is all the rage right now. Unfortunately, many of the publications, discussions and events on the subject tend to stay at the surface of things, going for the spectacularly ‘subversive’, the in your face and the provocative. There are real gems here and there though. Beautiful Rising is one of them.

Beautiful Rising is not a ‘coffee table’ object. It’s a manual, a toolkit for citizens who dream of grassroots movements that are effective, creative and compelling.

As for the Global South, it “is not a place. It’s a way of talking about a diverse set of struggles: the uprising of the planet’s people against neoliberal policies, at least, and against the capitalist system, at most.”

The projects described and analyzed in the book come from Asia, Africa and Latin America. But they should inspire the rest of the world too. Wherever we live, we all have to contend with the hysterical aftermaths of the latest U.S. presidential elections, the rise of intolerance, the deepening of social inequalities, the destruction of our environment as well as various systems of repression and discrimination. Although some countries and people have it far worse than others, of course.

Banksy, Sorry, the lifestyle you ordered is out of stock in London, December 2011. Photo via creating clever

The authors of Beautiful Rising have identified five types of tools for social change that should be mixed and matches, customized and combined according to every specific context:

Stories: accounts of significant actions and campaigns, with an analysis of what worked, what didn’t and why.
Tactics: the various types of creative actions and the potential risks they entail.
Principles: the sets of rules to follow and/or adapt in order to design successful actions and campaigns. Because there’s method and methodology even in disobedience.
Theories: the section zooms out on concepts that provide a foundation context and help us understand how the world works.
Methodologies: the practical bit with strategic frameworks and hands-on exercises to help assess your own situation and tailor a campaign.

Beautiful Rising is an energizing ode to civil disobedience. The stories of creative popular struggles might not all have a happy ending (many do though!) but they demonstrate that citizens have determination, imagination and humour, even in the face of brutal intimidation. As for the lessons to be found throughout the book, they build a picture of a South that needs solidarity not aid (or “NGO-ization” as the authors call it.) There’s a lot we can learn by listening to one another.

Here are some of my favourite stories from the Beautiful Rising toolkit:

BoxGirls Kenya, at Kariobangi Community Center. Photo: Adam Daver

After Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008, when many young women were sexually abused and traumatized, the organization Boxgirls Kenya used boxing to provide young women with an antidote to the shaming, stigma and fear that followed the brutality they had experienced. The sport is used as an entry point to discuss difficult topics related to sexuality and to violence against women.

The office also support girls with counseling, sanitary towels and, for those who can’t afford food, the opportunity to participate in a small feeding program.

The Vula Connection

Infographic showing the African National Congress (ANC) communication network during apartheid. Infographic: Ariel Acevedo | CC BY-NC-SA

At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, South African freedom fighters and hackers created an encrypted communication network that connected the leadership in exile with operatives in South Africa.

Traffic mimes in Bogota. Photo

Faced with a corrupt traffic police force as well as chaos and deaths on the roads, Bogota mayor, mathematician and philosophy professor Antanas Mockus fired 3,200 traffic cops and offered them the option to be retrained and hired back as mimes. 420 accepted the offer. They dramatized road maneuvers and mocked reckless drivers using only white gloves, expressive gestures and face paint. Traffic fatalities drop by over 50 percent.

The Ugandan women who strip to defend their land, Apaa village, Uganda, 2015. Photo

Female elders in northern Uganda invoked powerful cultural taboos by removing their clothes in front of two government ministers who were attempting to evict people in Apaa Village by force, grab their land and sell it to a South African investor who was planning to use the territory for elite sports game hunting.
To block the ministerial convoy, the community put up a roadblock and local women stripped naked in front of government ministers, soldiers and policemen. The move invoked a powerful cultural curse in Uganda where it provokes deep shame to see a woman the age of one’s mother naked.

Israeli activists were arrested for holding “Welcome to Palestine” signs at Ben Gurion airport. Photo: ActiveStills, via electronic intifada

Israeli authorities can deny tourists the right to visit Palestine if they state their intention to do so at the border. To protest Israel’s border policies, activists launched Welcome to Palestine, a campaign during which hundreds of international solidarity activists staged a “fly-in” at Ben Gurion airport demanding to visit Palestine.

In 2011, the first year of the action, more than 300 people from different nationalities took part. After arriving at the airport, activists peacefully unfurled “Welcome to Palestine” banners. Israeli police ripped down the signs and arrested activists. In 2012, following a “diplomatic” campaign by the Israeli government most of the 400 people worldwide who were set to fly to Palestine were denied boarding at their departure country.

The local and international media coverage exposed the Israeli regime of discrimination and repression.

Sofia Ashraf, Kodaikanal Won’t

In 2015, South Indian rapper Sofia Ashraf and Vettiver Collective turned Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” song into a protest against Unilever’s mercury poisoning at its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. The environmental crisis has affected the health of workers and is still polluting local soil and groundwater. Ashraf’s video went viral, giving 15 years of local campaign the international media coverage it needed. Intensified campaigning and a boycott of Unilever products forced the company to do the previously unthinkable: compensate Kodaikanal workers.

Sign in memory of the Black Panther Traffic Light’s effort to protect school children against traffic incident. Photo: Eric Fischer

Tired of waiting for a traffic light to be installed near a historically “black” public school in Oakland, armed members of the Black Panther Party escorted children across the street before and after school until authorities finally intervened and installed a traffic light on 1 August 1967.

Alexandre Orion, Ossario, 2006

The walls of the Max Feffer tunnel in Sao Paulo were covered with grime and soot from engine exhaust. Thinking he couldn’t be arrested for cleaning a public space, Alexandre Orion selectively cleaned parts of the walls through reverse graffiti. Local authorities had no choice but to clean all the walls in the tunnel, which had been Orion’s plan all along.

Freedom Summer activists sing before leaving training sessions at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, for Mississippi in June 1964. Photo: Ted Polumbaum Collection/Newseum, via

Photo on the homepage: Adam Daver, via Positive Magazine.

Art as Social Action. An Introduction to the Principles and Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art

Art as Social Action. An Introduction to the Principles and Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art, edited by Gregory Sholette, Chloë Bass and Social Practice Queens.

On amazon UK and USA. Table of contents.

Publisher Allworth Press writes: Art as Social Action is both a general introduction to and an illustrated, practical textbook for the field of social practice, an art medium that has been gaining popularity in the public sphere. With content arranged thematically around such topics as direct action, alternative organizing, urban imaginaries, anti-bias work, and collective learning, among others, Art as Social Action is a comprehensive manual for teachers about how to teach art as social practice.

Along with a series of introductions by leading social practice artists in the field, valuable lesson plans offer examples of pedagogical projects for instructors at both college and high school levels with contributions written by prominent social practice artists, teachers, and thinkers.

Public Lab, Balloon mapping, a DIY tool for gathering visual information about a site that is difficult to access physically, whether the site be toxic, watery, fenced, or patrolled. Photo

Art as Social Action is not your typical book about socially engaged art. I seem to review books about that very topic every month and this one is different. It is a collection of texts by teachers who, together with their art students, look for creative ways to enter in a discussion with society outside the classroom about topics as different as labour conditions, immigrant rights or mining on sacred Native American sites. Texts by teachers who want to make works with rather than about local communities. And, hopefully, make this world a slightly fairer and kinder one.

Art as Social Action is not a manual with solutions and failproof recipes but a source of inspiration with tactics, social models and bibliographies which lessons can be experimented by other teachers and other (art or not) students into the streets. Some of the texts are concise and lively. Others feel like dry reports.

I found the interviews and essays much more enjoyable to read. Each of them is witty, engaging and though-provoking. So much so that i’m going to quote from a couple of them:

From the interview of Pablo Helguera:

“What I think is missing in social practice programs is supporting the possibility to conduct research work that is fundable. Consider a project like Marisa Jahn’s Nanny Van, which supports and defends the rights of caretakers. She gets money and support from arts organizations, but she can also go to other agencies that support her social justice agenda. So the advantage social practice has is that we don’t necessarily need to fund our projects exclusively through the art world; we can actually go to city councils and social service organizations that protect and advocate for the types of social justice issues we are interested in.”

From the interview with Steve Duncombe and Steve Lambert from the Center for Artistic Activism:

Steve Duncombe: “I am very cynical about the university as a site for radical struggle. It has amazing recuperative powers—the university can take almost anything radical: feminism, class analysis, critical race theory, and just turn it into a seminar.”

From Gregory Sholette‘s concluding essay:

“Ultimately, therefore, what most differentiates SEAE from other modes of artistic learning, and most other forms of pedagogy, is the degree to which normative boundaries separating the type of learning that takes place in a school, and that which happens outside, in the real world, are not merely blurred, but aggressively, even gleefully, deconstructed.”

Marisa Morán Jahn, The Nanny Van (a mobile design lab and sound studio that promotes domestic workers’ labor rights across the USA)

Last few comments:

– this is one of those (still too) rare books in which the majority of contributors are not white male artists and thinkers from ‘western’ countries;
– I wish there had been more texts dealing with online tools and tactics for socially-engaged art;
– I’s recommend this book to practitioners of socially engaged art. Anyone else (no matter how interested you think you are in socially-engaged artistic practices) might find it less rewarding.

Curatorial Activism. Fighting sexism, racism, homo/lesbophobia and western-centrism one exhibition at a time

Curatorial Activism. Towards an Ethics of Curating by Curator and arts writer Maura Reilly. Forewords by Lucy R. Lippard.

It’s on amazon UK and USA.

Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: Despite decades of postcolonial, feminist, anti-racist and queer activism and theorizing, the art world continues to exclude ‘Other’ artists – those who are women, of colour and LGBTQ. Indeed, the more closely one examines the numbers, the more glaring it becomes that white, Euro-American, heterosexual, privileged and, above all, male artists continue to dominate the art world. The fight for gender and race equality continues apace.

Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, Never Mind Pollock, 2009

It’s 2018 and the art world is still suffering from an over-representation of white, straight, male artists. Stats (when and where they exist) show signs of marginal improvement, but there’s no denying that old values and canons have never ceased to dominate museums, collections and auction houses at the expense of female, LGTBQ and non-white and non-Western artists.

Curatorial Activism provides us with much needed moments of self-reflection and institutional critique. In her book, Maura Reilly looks into details at the pioneering exhibitions that have bravely challenged assumptions and leveled hierarchies. She also discusses the most successful tactics for addressing inequality, charting their potential, their flaws and the difficult questions they raise: how do you avoid ghettoizing the work of Other artists? How do you give more space to non-Western artists who don’t think they should have to ‘display their identity’? How do you ensure visibility to LGTB artists who don’t want to be identified solely on the basis of their sexual orientation?

One thing this book explains eloquently is that progresses are too often followed by setbacks. One of the many examples explored in the book looks at how, in 2008, the Centre Pompidou in Paris consigned to storage most of its works by male artists and ­rehung its permanent collection to show only works by women. The elles@centrepompidou initiative didn’t encounter a massive critical success and a year after it, the works by male artists were hung again while the ones by women went back to oblivion.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Two Planets: Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette and the Thai Villagers, 2008

Guerrilla Girls, Is it even worse in Europe?, 2016. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Although Curatorial Activism targets mostly curators, its content is relevant to anyone with some interest in the art world: Reilly urges museum to diversify their boards; holds private galleries responsible for perpetuating discriminatory practices; exhorts critics to draw attention to disparities and invites artists and marginalized people to make trouble and speak up. The rest of us should relentlessly question the art standards devised by white men for white men. We all have a role to play.

An easy thing to do would be to seek out and visit “alternative” art spaces that fill the void left by mainstream institutions. Reilly mentions the Studio Museum in Harlem. I’m thinking of Autograph APB located at Rivington Place in London. I try to visit their shows whenever i’m in town. Not because i’m explicitly seeking out ‘otherness’ but because their photography program is really good. Until we’ve achieved equality, the work of these organizations will remain invaluable.

Making the the art world more inclusive is an important endeavour. It feels particularly urgent today, in this general climate of reactionary and conservative politics, with a male white supremacist at the head of the US and with a Europe that seems intent on closing its borders to foreign influences.

Here’s a very short list of works i’ve discovered or re-discovered in the book:

James Luna, The Artifact Piece, 1986-1990

In 1986, Native American artist James Luna “installed’ himself in an exhibition case in the San Diego Museum of Man in a section on the Kumeyaay Indians, who once inhabited San Diego County. His performance challenged the way contemporary American museums have presented his people and culture as essentially extinct and vanished. He performed the piece in several cultural institutions.

Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Cutting, 1993

One of my favourite art interventions in the whole art history is Fred Wilson‘s Mining the Museum back in 1992 at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. I like it so much that instead of a photo i’m copy/pasting below a video from a presentation he made a couple of years ago at the V&A in London:

A change of heart – Fred Wilson’s impact on museums

Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document: Introduction, 1973

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Vittorio Scarpatti, 1989

Miwa Yanagi, Yuka, from the My Grandmother series, 2000

Alfredo Jaar, La géographie, ça sert d’abord à faire la guerre, 1989

Wangechi Mutu, The End of Carrying All, 2015

General Idea (Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson), Baby Makes 3, 1984-1989

Tariq Alvi, The Importance of Hanging, 2008

Inside the book:

Activestills. Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel

Activestills. Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel, edited by Vered Maimon, a Senior Lecturer in the Art History Department at Tel Aviv University, and by Shiraz Grinbaum, a curator and photo editor for the Activestills Collective and researcher at Tel Aviv University.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Pluto Press writes: In 2005, a group of photographers took a stand alongside the people of the small town of Bil’in, and documented their fight to stop the Israeli government building the infamous West Bank Barrier. Inspired by what they had seen in Bil’in, the group went on to form Activestills, a collective whose work has become vital in documenting the struggle against Israeli occupation and everyday life in extraordinary situations.

Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel examines the collective’s archive and activity from historical, theoretical, critical, and personal perspectives. It is the result of an in-depth dialogue among members of the collective and activists, journalists, intellectuals, and academics, and stands as the definitive study of the collective’s work.

Combining striking full-colour photographs with essays and commentary, the book stands as both a major contribution to reportage on Israel/Palestine and a unique collection of visual art.

Children sit amidst their belongings after a demolition in al-Araqib village in the south of present-day Israel, October 2009. Credit:

African asylum seekers and their supporters gather in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv, December 2013. Credit:

Demonstrators stage a solidarity action with Khader Adnan, who embarked on a lengthy hunger strike to protest his detention by Israel without charge or trial, in the West Bank village of Bilin, February 2012. Credit:

Activestills is a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international photographers who use their camera as a tool for social and political change. Unlike most photo reporters, the members of Activestills don’t see themselves as impartial and external witnesses but as part and parcel of the events they document. They don’t see their subjects as victims either, but as political agents who play an important role in the resistance against all forms of oppression.

Activestills dedicates an important portion of its coverage to the Israeli occupation and its two corollaries: the resistance against it and the violations of human rights carried out in broad day light. But the group also looks at injustices that happen within Israel: LGBTQ campaigns for equality, continuous discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, migration and asylum seekers, resistance against privatization of natural resources, the ultra-Orthodox community’s resistance to compulsory military enlistment, etc.
They see connections and parallels between theses struggles.

The Halif family site near an improvised dinner table set near their demolished house in Givat Amal neighbourhood, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2014. Two days passed since the third eviction of families in the neighbourhood which left 20 residents homeless without proper compensation or alternative housing solution. Credit:

Activestills street exhibition, Bil’in, West Bank, 2007. Credit:

Another important focus of Activestills is that that they want their images and the social issues they address to be visible to everyone. The group not only collaborates with independent media but they also set up street exhibitions in the very spaces where the images have been taken, making them closer to an audience of people who are directly affected by the situations documented. The street shows also find their way to Israel. Although the audience there might sometimes be less willing to engage with some of the struggles that the photos uncover.

I’ve been admiring the work of the photo collective for years. Activestills. Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel is a relentlessly interesting book that analyses the group’s practices of intervention and visualization of struggles and explores their unique identity within the field of photo reporting. As you can expect, the book is splendidly illustrated with images of the collective’s work but it also contains essays, conversations with and texts by activists and by photographers who further illuminate and contextualize the work of Activestills, the way it challenges paradigms of news consumption and embeds solidarity into each of its actions.

A protester during confrontations with Israeli forces north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, near the Beit El settlement, November 2015. Credit:

Palestinian farmer and activist Muhammad Amira climbs a ladder next to the separation wall to watch over Israeli soldiers arriving to open the agricultural gate in his village, Ni’lin, in the West Bank. After the building of the wall in Ni’lin, many farmers were separated from their agricultural land. In order to work on their land, they must apply for wall-crossing permits from the Israeli army. Credit:

Residents of the ‘unrecognized’ village of Al-Araqib hold Activestills photos documenting their struggle during a protest against the demolition of their homes, 2010. Israeli authorities have since demolished the village over 100 times. Credit:

In the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, Israeli soldiers arrest Nariman Tamimi, a photographer herself, as her 8-year-old daughter, Ahed, tries to free her during a protest against the occupation in August 2012. Credit:

Photographs of Ali Saad Dawabsha, the Palestinian baby in an overnight arson attack, are laid out on the floor of his family home, Douma, West Bank, July 31, 2015. Credit:

Protesters take part in a demonstration calling for animal liberation. Tel Aviv, Israel (2013). © Activestills

Israeli soldiers try to arrest Activestills photographer Oren Ziv during a protest against settler violence in the West Bank, October 2012. Credit:

Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 (part 2)

As promised, here’s a follow-up of Monday’s first foray into Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 which you can currently visit at De Domijnen in Sittard (NL). The exhibition gathers the work of over 40 artists who, through small scale interventions, attempt to bring a creative answer to the numerous environmental crises European ecosystems are going through.

Today’s short selection will focus on artistic attempts (many of them successful) to restore environmental damage:

Nils Norman, The Gerrard Winstanley Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station (European Chapter), 2000. Installation view at Museum De Domijnen. Photo by Bert Janssen

Nils Norman, The Gerrard Winstanley Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station (European Chapter), 2000

Nils Norman designed a bike trailer to travel between parks, playgrounds, schools and public squares. Once parked, the trailer opens to reveal a small photocopier, a library, a small weather station as well as a solar panel. The library consists of books on DIY culture, permaculture, urban gardening, energy systems, utopias and issues of gentrification.

The mobile library encourages people to photocopy the chapters in the books that interest them and implement the ideas found in the publications.

The bike is named after Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of “the Diggers”, a group of Protestant radicals in 17th Century England who tried to defy the enclosure of common land by private interests: occupying it en masse, pulling down hedges, digging it up and cultivating it for food.

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 trees 11,000 People 400 Years (Triptych), 1992-1996, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain in 2013. Photo by Strata Suomi

Tree Mountain is a monumental reclamation project located in Ylöjärvi, Finland. The project was officially announced by the Finnish government at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in l992 as Finland’s contribution to help alleviate the world’s ecological stress. The huge mountain was planted with eleven thousand trees by eleven thousand people from all over the world, eventually creating the first man-made virgin forest.

People who planted the trees received certificates acknowledging them as custodians of the trees. The certificate is an inheritable document valid for twenty or more generations in the future. Situated on top of an aquifer known as Finland’s purest source, Tree Mountain preserves the precious resources for centuries to come.

Agnes Denes conceived the project in the early 1980s as a mark of humanity’s commitment to the future ecological, social and cultural life on the planet.

Vera Thaens, Roof Runoff Purifying System. Photo: Bert Janssen

Vera Thaens installed a biological water purification station in Sittard. Her Roof Runoff Purifying System uses different types of plants to filter and clean rainwater, making it ideal for drinking. The water plants were selected for their specific ability to remove toxic substances. Some extract nitrates and nitrites from the rainwater. Others can even get rid of hormones from wastewater (something that chemical wastewater treatment plants can’t always achieve.)

The idea of ​​purifying drinking water with plants is nothing new. German scientist Käthe Seidel prototyped the system back in the 1950s. She seems to have been an amazing person. When asked why her ingenious and wastewater purification system never took off, she answered:

Men always reach for technology, for development. They insist it will bring us to higher levels of progress. They haven’t the patience to work with slow-growing plants, nor do they understand natural cycles as women do. They see my work as farming, not engineering, so they go away and return to their machinery.”

Marjetica Potrc and Ooze (Eva Pfannes & Sylvain Hartenberg, Source de Friche, 2012

The site of Source de Friche in Brussels used to be a Shell Oil industrial site, where rainwater and ground water had accumulated in a large depression. Although the site had been decontaminated, the water remained polluted. The project highlighted and sped up the self-regenerative power of nature by processing the polluted water through a constructed wetland, a system that uses existing and new helophyte plants to filter the water. Although the water was purified, it still did not meet all European regulations for drinking water for humans, so the artists labelled it as water “of drinkable quality exclusively for non-humans”.

Rebecca Chesney, I’m blue, you’re yellow, Everton park, Liverpool, 2012

As a result of her research into habitats that help support local populations of bees and other insects, Rebecca Chesney was commissioned to realise the planting of two acres of meadow on Everton Park in Liverpool. One acre was made entirely of blue flowering species, the other acre of yellow ones. Each acre was one solid block of colour.

Rebecca Chesney, I’m blue, you’re yellow, Everton park, Liverpool, 2017

The artist recently went to see the meadows. They were in their 6th summer and quite different from when they were first planted. They have changed gradually over the years and are now mixed with loads of other species coming in.

Lois Weinberger, Das über die Planzen/ist eins mit Ihnen (What is Beyond Plants is at One with Them), documenta 10, 1997. Photo: 34 magazin

For the 1997 edition of documenta, Lois Weinberger planted a garden amongst the railway tracks of Kassel’s central station. The plants mixed native vegetation with ruderal plants the artist had collected in Central and Eastern Europe, during and after the collapse of communism. These nomadic survivors, ‘foreign immigrants’ to German soil, flourished amongst the transit lines of ‘Old Europe’, subverting any human projection of territorial sovereignty, or fixed borders, and still do so today.

Weinberger views this continuous botanical blending as a metaphor for social processes such as global migration. “The way a society deals with its plants tells us a lot about itself”, he once said.

Lois Weinberger, Brandenburger Tor, Berlin 1994

Lois Weinberger, Gebiet Wien (Area Vienna), 1988

Much of Weinberger’s work investigates Gilles Clément’s idea of the Third Landscape (the space left over by man to nature alone.) Weinberger’s gardens are not looked after. They are left to evolve, expand, be taken over by weeds and grow into unruly little landscapes.

Moirika Reker, Fruta a Mão (Urban Orchards – Pick Your (City) Fruit), 2014-ongoing. Photo via interact

When learning that most of the fruit trees adorning Portugal’s city streets were ornamental and too bitter to eat, Moirika Reker decided that these spaces could grow edible fruits instead. She sought a European Culture Foundation grant to develop “Fruta à mão” (Urban Orchards – Pick Your (City) Fruit). She focused her efforts on transforming part of the park Quinta dos Lilases in Lisbon into a public orchard. The urban orchard would be cared for, maintained and harvested by the community. The idea is to bring attention to the possibility of participation in one’s own nourishment, addressing issues related to food security, urban sustainability and aesthetic fruition of the city.

Despite pretending to be working on implementing Reker’s proposal, the city had its landscape architect design a 3000m2 orchard instead.

Hop! Couple more images from the exhibition:

Jean-Francois Paquay, Edible Environment. Photo: Bert Janssen

Installation view of Ecovention at Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen

Once again, i’m going to recommend the catalogue because it’s that good. You can get it online at BOL if you live in The Netherlands. The rest of us can buy it on Amazon.

Ecovention Europe, art to transform ecologies, 1957 – 2017 remains open at Museum Hedendaagse Kunst De Domijnen in Sittard (NL) 7th January 2018

Previously: Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 (part 1.)

Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 (part 1)

Paul Chaney, Breast Plough’o’metric, 2014. Photo via THG (Thelma Hulbert Gallery)

Scientist, curator and philosopher Sue Spaid coined the term ‘Ecovention’ in 1999 and went on to illustrate its meaning and reach three years later with an exhibition titled Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Spaid defines ecoventions as inventive, practical actions with ecological intent. The focus of an ecovention is not to interfere aesthetically with the landscape but to explore how art can contribute, even on a microscale, to the improvement of a given ecosystem.

This year, Sue Spaid teamed up with Roel Arkesteijn to look at the development of these artistic ecological interventions in Europe. Together, they curated Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 at De Domijnen in Sittard.

The artists in the show not only remind us that the way we exploit the earth and its resources is irresponsible and unsustainable but they also look for solutions to environmental destruction. Alone or with the help of local communities, they’ve cleaned up polluted soils, planted wheat fields, provided pollinators with appetizing flowery landscapes, built hanging gardens, initiated edible and medicinal urban farms, developed schemes for sharing excess food and bred more resilient chicken breeds.

Unlike the website of De Domijnen, the show is in both Dutch and English. It is also very good. Informative, impeccably researched and uplifting. Ecovention Europe cheered me up and convinced me that the human animal is not a hopelessly toxic species after all.

Cecylia Malik, Białka’s Braids, 2013/2017. Photo credit: Mieszko Stanisławski

Do me a favour and visit the show if you live in the area (Sittard is 15 minutes away from Maastricht by cheap and cheerful train) because exhibitions like these are few and far between. Sue Spaid explains why in this extract from a fascinating interview she had with Metropolis: Pragmatically speaking, this kind of art is a nightmare for institutions. They prefer the kind that comes in a box, comes out of a box and then gets returned in a box a few months later. If the artists decide to exhibit something living, the museums are responsible for keeping it alive! If it is living, it might generate insects, dust, vapor, etc. Then there is the issue of commissioning ecoventions, which is another thorny issue, since it demands artists working with politicians, scientists, community members, etc., not to mention securing permits to place the work.

The exhibition is huge, with dozens of art works, all of which i’d like to mention. I’ll only cover a fraction of what i’ve discovered at De Domijnen in this article and the one coming up tomorrow (if i have good wifi access during my 9 hour long journey and i’m not too lazy) or on Wednesday. Here’s a first selection:

Paul Chaney, Breast Plough’o’metric, 2014 (video)

Paul Chaney, Slug’o’metric Device II, 2008

Paul Chaney, Slug’o’metric Devices

Paul Chaney. Installation view at Museum De Domijnen. Photo by Bert Janssen

Made of forged iron and chestnut, Breast Plough’o’metric is a replica of an ancient breast plough. Paul Chaney outfitted it with digital strain gauges and a small computer to record the exact amount of effort needed to plough a given tract of land by human power alone.

The instrument is part of a series that explores the metrics of direct human interaction with the land. A previous work, the Slug’o’metric series of kinetic sculptures employs progressively more complex technologies to kill and count slugs in your garden patch. The more technologically sophisticated each device gets, the more it removes the user from the physical action of killing the mollusc. Both the Slug’o’metric series and the Breast Plough’o’metric unsettle the typical illusion that ‘living with the land’ is a pure and uncomplicated affair.

George Steinmann, Blues for the glaciers, 2015. Photo: Tabea Reusser

In 2015, artist and blues musician George Steinmann became the first ever official “artistic observer” at the World Climate Conference COP21 in Paris.

It’s in this context that Steinmann recorded a concert of blues music in the Glacier du Rhône, in the Swiss Alps. He chose this particular glacier as the venue for the performance because the ice up there is melting about 8 cm a day. It’s global warming in action and without any veil of modesty.

The concert was filmed and unfiltered with all the sounds of nature

Brandon Ballengée, DFA136: Procrustes, cleared and stained Pacific tree frog collected in Aptos, California in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions (from the series Malamp Reliquaries), 2013

Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen

Malamp Reliquaries are a series of portraits of severely deformed amphibians that artist and biologist Brandon Ballengée has discovered in wetlands, ponds and rivers around the world. Their extra or missing limbs can be explained either by the presence of chemical pollutants or by a parasite, Ribeiroia ondatrae. It is thought that the parasite disrupts the cells involved in the limb bud formation of tadpoles.

To make these portraits, the artist chemically “cleared and stained” the frogs. The photos are printed as unique watercolor ink prints and each individual frog appears to “float” in clouds. This otherworldly quality is reinforced by the titles named after ancient characters from Greco-Roman mythology.

The artist writes: They are scaled so the frogs appear approximately the size of a human toddler, in an attempt to invoke empathy in the viewer instead of detachment or fear: if they are too small they will dismissed but if they are too large they will become monsters. Each finished artwork is unique and never editioned, to recall the individual animal and become a reliquary to a short-lived non-human life.

AnneMarie Maes, Transparent Beehive, 2013-2014. Photo by AnneMarie Maes

AnneMarie Maes, Red Flag. Photo by AnneMarie Maes

The Transparent Beehive is an observation beehive that used to home a living bee colony. The beehive is fitted with microphones which pick up the vibrations and sounds of the hive and monitor the colony. Cameras inside the hive survey the growth of the wax structures and the activity of bees. Additional sensors measure the microclimate inside the structure. Data is then processed and visualized to make the state of the colony tangible.

In 2013, the bees inhabiting Maes’ beehive suffered colony collapse disorder due to the invasion of the waxmoth. Standing empty, emitting only the recorded sounds of the honey bees that once inhabited it, the work bears witness to colony collapse disorder that challenges our food future.

In the exhibition, the beehive is accompanied by a lightbox depicting a scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a honey bee’s extended glossa, the hairy “tongue” in the bee’s mouth that collects nectar from flowers.

Finally, the Red Flag, a biotextile grown by microorganisms, warns us that we should act to preserve (or restore) the well being of our environment.

Vera Thaens, Lost Common Sense, 2014/2017, Black lights, broccoli, Monsanto broccoli seed patent

Vera Thaens, Lost Common Sense, 2014/2017. Installation view at Museum De Domijnen. Photo by Bert Janssen

Vera Thaens hid an illicit plantation of broccoli under the staircase of the museum. The work, called Lost Common Sense, reacts to Monsanto being granted a patent on broccoli in all of its natural forms in Europe (in EUROPE!!!)

I’ll mention Thaens again in my upcoming story. I wish i could find more documentation about her work online. That lady is my new hero!

Lara Almarcegui, Mineral Rights, Tveitvangen, 2015

Lara Almarcegui looked into issues surrounding the ownership of the ground and the depths beneath it. Mineral Rights are regulated differently from country to country. They entitle an individual or organization to explore the rocks, minerals oil and gas found below the surface of the land. It is often impossible for a private individual to acquire them. After a lengthy procedure, Lara Almarcegui gained the mineral rights to the iron ore deposits for an area of one square kilometer in Tveitvangen, near Oslo. The mineral rights reach from the subsoil down to the center of the earth. Her objective though was to prevent the resources from being extracted.

She later acquired another iron deposit in Buchkogel and Thal, near Graz.

The artist writes: The project reminds us of how the territory is shaped at a geological level and how it is broken down and split into pieces for mine exploitation. While presenting what is below the feet in our contemporary cities and who owns it, the project raises the question of mineral extraction for the production of construction materials and it brings to light questions on land ownership and resources ownership.

Federica Di Carlo, Come in terro cosi in cielo (As in earth, so on heaven), 2013-ongoing

Federica Di Carlo, Come in terro cosi in cielo (As in earth, so on heaven), 2013-ongoing

Since Federica Di Carlo noticed that not all rainbows have all 6 colours, she has been working with scientists to discover the relationship between incomplete rainbows and air pollution.

Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen

Czekalska + Golec, Homo Anubium (St. Francis 100% Sculpture), 1680-1985

Tatiana Czekalska and Leszek Golec co-created these artworks (originally church sculptures) with woodworms that had eaten so much of the material that their former owners deemed them useless as religious sculptures. The artists however saw the aesthetic and intrinsic value in the contribution of the animals, in particular their having selected Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the natural environment. The artists date it 1680-1985 as they see the creative process as being conducted over centuries

More views from the exhibition:

Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen

Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen

Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen

Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen

Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017

The publication that accompanies the exhibition is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in ecological art. You can get it online at BOL if you live in The Netherlands. The rest of us can buy it on Amazon.

Ecovention Europe, art to transform ecologies, 1957 – 2017 remains open at Museum Hedendaagse Kunst De Domijnen in Sittard (NL) 7th January 2018