Category Archives: art in Berlin

Secrets of Trade. Goldin+Senneby on magic, finance and art market predictions


Goldin+Senneby, Zero Magic, 2016. Exhibition view at Nome Gallery

Goldin+Senneby use strategies and tools inspired by the financial sector to dissect the late-capitalist system, interrogate its mythologies and expose its connections with areas as diverse as virtual identities, precarious labour in the art sector or even alchemy. Goldin+Senneby is “a framework for collaboration”, its projects often use the skills and knowledge of experts in the fields they are investigating. These collaborators might be computer engineers, magicians, economists, anthropologists or playwrights.

The NOME gallery in Berlin has recently opened a solo show of the artists duo. Titled Secrets of Trade, the exhibition presents key works from Goldin+Senneby’s recent interrogations of financial trading, the art market, and artificial intelligence.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the works in the show:


Goldin+Senneby, Art Aligns With Young Readers, 2017. From the series Force Directed Predictions


Goldin+Senneby, Force Directed Predictions. Exhibition view at Nome Gallery

Correlation maps generated by algorithms trained on art market data (Force Directed Predictions). The maps visualize art price fluctuations as they relate to macro political and economic factors such as employment rates and literacy. One shows only positive correlations and the other only negative correlations.


Goldin+Senneby, Zero Magic, 2016. Exhibition view at Nome Gallery

For Zero Magic, the artist duo infiltrated a secretive hedge fund in the US, reverse engineered its methods and recreated its short selling practices. This practice consists in selling shares that one does not own to buy it back once it has fallen in price, netting a profit in the process. Which sounds pretty baffling for someone like me. Indeed there’s something akin to magic here. It’s about ‘adjusting’ people’s perception of reality, making them see things that do not exist. It doesn’t take place on a stage though but in the more secretive context of the financial markets.

In collaboration with the magician Malin Nilsson and finance sociologist Théo Bourgeron, Goldin+Senneby developed and patented a magic trick for the financial markets that has the capacity to undermine the perceived value of a publicly traded company and to profit from this. The magic gimmick consists in a computer program that help non-experts identify suitable short selling targets, and a step-by-step guide to undermining their perceived value and executing thus a successful short sale. Goldin+Senneby put the Zero Magic computer software inside a magic box that also contains a US Patent Application for Computer Assisted Magic Trick Executed in the Financial Markets and four historical examples of magic tricks played out offstage, in real life.

Nilsson will be performing a magic demonstration on the last night of the exhibition (this way to RSVP!)


Goldin+Senneby, Momentum Trading Strategy. Exhibition view at Nome Gallery


Goldin+Senneby, Momentum Trading Strategy. Exhibition view at Nome Gallery

Goldin+Senneby acquired a series of confidential trading strategies in exchange for artworks. These ‘tricks of the trade’ are bound in files and sealed in glass boxes. The content remain a mystery to the viewer, only cover illustrations by designer Johan Hjerpe might give us a clue since they visually interpret the main dynamics of the strategies.


Goldin+Senneby, Banca Rotta (Central Europe, Late Baroque, oak), 2012/2017. Exhibition view at Nome Gallery

There’s also an antique money changers’ table broken in two. The piece of furniture is a visual representation of the etymology of “bankruptcy”, which derives from banca rotta, the Italian word for broken bench, the bench that moneylenders worked from and that had to be broken when they were no longer in business.

I’ve written time and time again about Goldin+Senneby‘s work. But i’ve never met them. Nor have i ever had the chance to fire a few questions at them. Until now:

Hi Goldin+Senneby! To be honest with you, I’m a bit worried about this interview. While preparing it, i read a story in rhizome that says: “In previous interviews the artists have responded to questions about the project exclusively in the form of quotes from its various parts. For the interview below, however, they produced some new statements, perhaps mindful of the opportunity to recycle them in future incarnations of Headless.” Is that a strategy you have kept on using since that 2009 rhizome interview?

No. This was one of our strategies used in the Headless project – an eight year long performance (2007-2015) staging an “act of withdrawal”.

Goldin+Senneby works with people who sometimes have rather surprising profiles: a magician, an investment banker, an academic social scientist, a patent attorney, an anthropologist, etc. How do you work with them? How much say do they have in the process that leads to a final work?

We try to produce situations in which our (willing and unwilling) collaborators can “act as themselves”. We think of our practice as a distribution of agency within authored frameworks. The clearer the frame we are able to provide, the more agency can be handed over.

Attaching a slide from a “progress report” produced by management consultant Aliceson Robinson in 2011, where she interviewed 12 individuals who had played key roles in our project The Nordenskiöld Model (2010-2017), but notably not ourselves.


Progress Report

The show at NOME Gallery will feature the magic demonstration Acid Money. Could you tell us what will happen? Will it feature the magic trick for the financial markets that you patented?

Yes, the magic demonstration will feature our trick for the financial markets (patent pending) and how we appropriated the methods for this trick from a secretive hedge fund. It will also offer an opportunity to bring some magic with you home!

One of the works you will be showing at the Berlin gallery is Force Directed Predictions. From what i gathered online, the series is based on a system that uses big data and AI to predict art prices. Do algorithms really play such a key role when it comes to predicting art prices? How did we get there?

In the context of a gallery show we were interested in the possibility of offering art market predictions as artworks. So on one level the idea is straightforward: to offer meta-data about collecting to collectors.

And because the learning process of the AI we are working with looks at art price fluctuations in relation to a wide range of macro political and economic indicators (10k+ correlating factors) it also produces portraits of the kind of society in which the art market thrives or declines respectively.

These works are the beginning of a longer process. We are collaborating with XLabs.ai and one of their artificial intelligences that has been surprisingly good at predicting “black swan” events in other areas (such as unexpected civil unrest, large jumps in commodity prices, etc). When we got into contact with XLabs, they were just about to discontinue the use of this AI, since they were disillusioned with their customer base – the only customers that were able and willing to pay for these kinds of predictions were either hedge funds or authoritarian states, and they were not interested in selling their services to either of these categories.

So you figured out how to predict art prices, how to use magic and patents to perform financial manipulations…. Why do you feel that you need to bring this knowledge into the art world? That’s very generous of course but if i were you, i’d use all those tricks and know-how to get ultra rich and ultra idle.

In this sense we are not sure that we are bringing anything to the art world that isn’t already there. Clearly, much of the art sector is bound up with the “ultra rich and ultra idle”, as you put it. For us an important question is how to deal with this position of implication.


Goldin+Senneby. Exhibition view at Nome Gallery


Goldin+Senneby, VWAP Mean Reversion Strategy with Professor Donald MacKenzie and Philip Grant, 2013. Exhibition view at Nome Gallery

Your practice mixes objects with creative forms such as theater, magic and literary fiction. In general, i find that many of your works are quite ‘brainy’. They are fascinating and easy to get drawn into but they require time and attention from the audience to fully engage with them. Is that part of a plan to request effort from the audience? Or is it because the complexity of topics such as financial operations or the art market requires that we observe/reflect upon them with care?

In times of financialization, speed and acceleration have been distinct features. But we are slow. We work for years on the same project. And this slowness produces certain contradictions that we value.

One of our long-term collaborators, playwright Pamela Carter, drew our attention to how, in physical comedy, it’s a rule that you slow the action down … just a little … just enough to give the audience time to see the joke fully … and then laugh.

Thanks Goldin+Senneby!

Goldin+Senneby‘s solo show, Secrets of Trade, remains open until 9 June 2018 at the NOME gallery in Berlin. The magic demonstration Acid Money will take place as part of the exhibition on 9 June 2018 at 7.30 pm.

Previous stories featuring Goldin+Senneby: Artefact festival: Magic and politics, Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013, Artissima 2013 – From Philospher’s stone to tomato crops, Feedforward. The Angel of History. Part 2: Globalization and agency.

Politics of Design: critical positions from FH Potsdam

A much belated review of Politiken des Designs / Politics of Design, an exhibition i saw back in January at Kunstraum Potsdam, a forum for fine arts near Berlin.

The exhibition showcased the work of young designers recently graduated or still studying at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam (aka FH Potsdam – Fachbereich Design or FHP.) As its name suggest, the show aimed to demonstrate that design can play an important role when it comes to engaging with today’s social, social and political concerns. Through various visual and experiential strategies, designers can make more visible and even tangible problems that are under-discussed or too abstract to be easily understood.

The young designers used various strategies to tackle sociopolitical issues: data viz, gaming, photography, animation, etc. I’m going to mix and match below some of my favourite works in the exhibition:


José Ernesto Rodríguez, Philipp Strixner-Weber, Thomas Miebach, Mario Klemm and Merle Ibach, Urban Dataobjects (Poverty and social exclusion in Europe)


José Ernesto Rodríguez, Philipp Strixner-Weber, Thomas Miebach, Mario Klemm and Merle Ibach, Urban Dataobjects (National dept per person in 2015)

José Ernesto Rodríguez, Philipp Strixner-Weber, Thomas Miebach, Mario Klemm and Merle Ibach, Urban Dataobjects


José Ernesto Rodríguez, Philipp Strixner-Weber, Thomas Miebach, Mario Klemm and Merle Ibach, Urban Dataobjects (Young people not employed and not participating in education or training between 20–24 in 2015)

Every year the Bertelsmann Foundation publishes the Social Justice in the EU Index. The survey comprises 27 quantitative and eight qualitative indicators, each associated with one of the six dimensions of social justice: poverty prevention; equitable education; labor market access; social cohesion and non-discrimination; health; and intergenerational justice.

The design students took to the streets of Potsdam and Berlin to confront the passersby with statistics they might otherwise not pay much attention to. The deisgners glued, tagged, sprayed and otherwise communicated the results of the Social Justice survey onto the public space, always selecting the most appropriate medium and place for each set of data.


Flavio Gortana, The Internet of Other People


Flavio Gortana, The Internet of Other People

The Internet of Other People is not quite ready to go public yet (hence the screenshots from the work instead of a link to the actual website) but the work is so interesting and premonitory in the light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that i had to mention it. The project allows you to find out what other people get to see on their personalized internet, in particular on social media sites. A user can connect with her/his Facebook or Twitter account through the project platform (still in beta), and then see what other people see when they use these services.

The discovery of other people’s internet is mediated by an algorithm that makes predictions about someone’s personality and preferences, based on his/her Facebook likes or Twitter activities. The service is similar to the one offered by Cambridge Analytica. Social media platforms themselves use this type of prediction algorithms in order to select content and target advertising. These predictions include demographic data such as age, gender and political orientation, but also personality traits such as openness and extraversion.

The idea behind the project is not to satisfy anyone’s voyeuristic penchant but to make web users more aware of the traces they leave when using digital technology. The work also brings the spotlight on targeting and exploiting mechanisms that takes place completely in the dark. At least until leaks, investigations and reverse engineering reveal their existence.

Julian Braun, Elmar Kriegler, Boris Müller, A Brief History of CO2 Emissions

The Urban Complexity Lab of the FHP collaborated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research to create an animated visualization of past and future carbon dioxide emissions, one of the driving forces behind climate change.

This striking visualization of CO2 emissions from 1751 to 2100 demonstrates convincingly the urgency of limiting the amount of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Aljoscha Seuss, Tachinahare, 2017

Tachinahare takes a look back at the incidents of Minamata disease in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to raise awareness of environmental pollution. Minamata is a located on Kyushu, Japan’s most southwesterly island. In 1956, four patients from the town were admitted to hospital with the same baffling symptoms: very high fever, convulsions, psychosis, loss of consciousness, coma, etc. As more and more people presented the same ailments and died, an investigation was open. It concluded that the disease was caused by the industrial poisoning of Minamata Bay by plastic manufacturer Chisso Corp. As a result of wastewater pollution, large amounts of mercury and other heavy metals found their way into the sea life that comprised a large part of the local diet. Thousands of residents have suffered from the disease over the decades. It remains Japan’s greatest environmental tragedies

The video is part of Aljoscha Seuss‘s graduation project Plastic in Motion.

Christian Laesser, They Know


Christian Laesser, They Know, 2014

They Know makes the issue of mass surveillance programs more tangible by using a fictional monitoring software. The work demonstrates with great clarity the modus operandi of surveillance agencies and the ease with which the data of any a normal citizen can be intercepted and (mis)interpreted.

The website of the project lists and describes types of surveillance, strategies, potential repercussions on the individual’s life, etc. but it also features a helpful lineup of tips to protect your data against mass surveillance or at least complicate the work of the intelligence agencies.


Garden at FHP


PDF of the book in english.

School Garden Root Network is a 100-page booklet that celebrates school garden cultures around the world. The publication dives into the significance of these garden. They don’t provide just fruit, herbs and veggies but also lessons about cultivation, management of resources and community-making. On a macro level, school gardens give space to reflect on and discuss issues like climate change, soil loss, land grabbing, traditional knowledge, food politics, sovereignty, etc.

The students put theory into practice and made their own school garden in the vast courtyard of FH Potsdam.


Jens Over Drößiger, Natalie Schreiber, Antonia Fuchs, Flavio Gortana, Mathias Wolff, Hühner à la Carte

Hühner à la Carte is a quartets card game with 32 different chicken breeds. From the very humble broiler to the organically grown one, from the one day chicken to the wild jungle chicken.

Each card features a portrait of the chicken but also basic information about its way of life: living space, life expectancy, weight, as well as performances in terms of animal welfare, meat and laying. Which of the chicken breeds leads the happiest life? Which is the strongest? Which one is the most remunerative?

Through the game, a more nuanced, more critical view of chicken breeds (and their respective “privileged” or miserable life) emerge.


Jule Garschke, Die Befriedung der Welt


Jule Garschke, Die Befriedung der Welt


Jule Garschke, Die Befriedung der Welt


Jule Garschke, Die Befriedung der Welt (exhibition view)


Number of Separation Barriers Initiated Around the World, 1945–2014. Source: The Atlantic that comments “The chart above doesn’t account for all of these new barriers, a number of which have been constructed since 2014”

As a result of the refugee crisis, Europe will soon have more physical barriers on its national borders than it did during the Cold War.

Jule Garschke photographed walls and fences and catalogued them as if they were animal species, some of them invasive species. Some are charming and take the form of a leafy hedge. Some are mobile and temporary. Others are downright menacing and imposing a state of Apartheid on the communities enclosed behind high walls and barbed wires. Each of them says about our culture than most of us might suspect at first glance.


Sabina Fimbres Sabugal, Nach dem Beben / After the Quake (exhibition view)

Barely two weeks after the powerful earthquake that violently shook Mexico City, Sabrina Fimbres Sabugal visited her native country. She photographed and interviewed friends, relatives, acquaintances. Each of the black and white portraits is accompanied by a text in which people describe their experience of the event. The stories are moving and sad but also strangely uplifting. They talk of resilience, solidarity and small gestures that make up for the chaos and inadequacy of local authorities efforts to handle a disastrous situation.


Moritz Jekat, US Legal


Moritz Jekat, US Legal


Moritz Jekat, US Legal (exhibition view)

A personal narrative of a Berlin photographer’s experience of the days that followed the announcement of the winner of last U.S. presidential elections. Moritz Jekat was in the Los Angeles area (where 71.76% of voters had chosen Clinton) that day. His images show people in shock, protesting or simply trying to carry on with their lives probably hoping things would be ok. The photobook combines portraits and street scenes with social media posts and comments that a political activist published during that period of time. Jekat’s images are dark but they also show the inspirational energy that animates the citizens who can’t identify with a racist, homophobic, sexist and bigot president.

More images from the Politiken des Designs show:

All images by Franz Grünewald and Moritz Jekat.

Related stories: Graphic design for social change, Drones, pirates, everyday racism. An interview with graphic designer Ruben Pater, Design and Violence. Part 1: ambiguous violence and Part 2: violence where you wouldn’t expect it, Khandayati. Turning objects of oppression into spinning weapons, Disobedient Electronics: Protest, Design My Privacy. 8 Principles for Better Privacy Design, etc.

Josef Koudelka. Wall, portrait of a crime against the landscape


Josef Koudelka . Invasion / Exiles / Wall, view of the exhibition space at C/O Berlin

“Every day that I was there I didn’t see anything else but the wall, and I can tell you I couldn’t stand it longer than three weeks. I was so depressed that I needed to go away,” photographer Josef Koudelka explained in an interview about Wall, a series that documents the monumental wall erected by the state of Israel in the West Bank as well as around Israeli settlements.

In the early 2000s Israel unilaterally decided on building the wall on the pretext of protecting itself from terrorist attacks. A nine meter-tall and today over 700-kilometer-long fortress made of steel, concrete, barbed wire, and motion detectors—almost three times as high and five times as long as the Berlin Wall once was.

One of the reasons why Koudelka found it so painful to be in proximity to the wall is that he grew up behind the Iron Curtain. He is thus more affected than many of us by this attempt to curtail people’s freedom.

I didn’t grow up behind a wall but i did feel anxiety, claustrophobia and sadness when i discovered some of his panoramic landscape photographs at C/O Berlin. They were part of Josef Koudelka . Invasion / Exiles / Wall, an exhibition that also includes earlier works, such as the ones recording the Soviet occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia and the ones he took while living in exile in other European countries. The whole exhibition is magnificent but -and this won’t surprise anyone- i had to single out Wall.

I’ll leave you with his photos and accompanying comments:


Rachel’s Tomb, Bethlehem.
The Wall intrudes two kilometers into Bethlehem City to encircle Rachel’s Tomb, traditionally considered the burial site of the Biblical matriarch. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Josef Koudelka, Baqa ash Sharqiya Access gate.
Around 7,500 West Bank Palestinians reside between the Wall and the Green Line in an area called the ‘Seam Zone’. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Shu’fat Refugee Camp, overlooking Al ‘Isawiya, East Jerusalem.
When complete, the Wall will be approximately 700 kilometres long, more than twice the length of the 320-kilometer 1949 Armistice or Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem, overlooking Gilo settlement.
The wall severs the historic link between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in addition to cutting off Bethlehem from its agricultural hinterland. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Hebron.
Around 120 obstacles block off the Israeli-controlled Old City of Hebron (H1 zone) from the rest of the city (H2 zone). © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Ash Shuhada Street, Hebron.
The majority of the Palestinian shops in the once commercially thriving Ash Shuhada Street have closed as a result of access restrictions by the Israeli military and harassment by Jewish settlers. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Roadblock, Route 443.
Roadblocks, checkpoints, and other physical obstacles restrict Palestinian pedestrian and vehicular movement throughout the West Bank. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Al ‘Eizariya (Bethany), overlooking, Ma’ale Adumminm settlement, East Jerusalem.
The Wall consists of concrete slabs, fences, ditches, razor wire, an electronic monitoring system, groomed sand paths, observation towers and military patrol roads. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

“I call what is going on in this most holy landscape, which is most holy for a big part of humanity, is the crime against the landscape. As there exists crimes against humanity there should exist the crime against the landscape.

I am principally against destruction — and what’s going on is a crime against the landscape that is enormous in one of the most important landscapes in the world,” the photographer added in the interview mentioned above.


Al ‘Eizariya (Bethany), East Jerusalem.
Although the Wall is the largest infrastructure project undertaken by Israel, no studies have been carried out to evaluate its environmental impact. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Near Baqa ash Sharqiya.
Increasingly, Palestinians farmers can only access their farmland on the de facto Israeli side of the Wall with special Israeli issued ‘visitor permits’ and through designated gates. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Wall is part of a larger project, This Place, initiated by photographer Frédéric Brenner that explores Israel as place and metaphor through the eyes of twelve photographers.

The series is currently on view at C/O Berlin as part of Josef Koudelka. Invasion / Exiles / Wall. The exhibition was curated by Xavier Barral in cooperation with Sonia Voss. It remains open until 10 September 2017.

Dust Bloom. Can we put a price on the services that urban flowers provide?


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

Every plant, no matter how humble and small, performs a series of services for us. Some are obvious: plants provide us with food, remedies and raw materials. Other services they offer tend to be overlooked. They help filter water and cool the air, they create buffers against natural disasters, prevent soil erosion, provide shelter for animals. They also perform all sort of ‘cultural services’ for us: they can act as an uplifting background for our sport activities, become tourism destinations or inspire art, mental well-being and spiritual experiences. All of us, human and non-human alike, benefit from the presence of plants around us.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) focuses on “making nature’s values visible” to decision-makers. The aim of the initiative is to demonstrate the values of ecosystems and biodiversity in economic terms but also to lay bare the costs of political inaction.

What might sounds like a cold and utilitarian approach is actually an invaluable concept that could spur us into appreciating, valuing and protecting plants and the ecosystems they are part of.

Artist and urban planner Alexandra Toland worked with experts in environmental microbiology, urban soils, and of course urban ecosystem services to explore the ability of flowers to help filter atmospheric particulate matter (PM.) These ‘dusts’ can come from natural sources such as pollen but also from industrial and vehicular emissions and tire abrasion. Their presence in the environment has been linked to cardiovascular, respiratory and other health problems, especially in cities where there is relatively more pollution and less vegetation to filter it.

The filtering capacity of flowers is a neglected area of research, compared to leaves. However, the complex, three-dimensional structures of flowers make them valuable allies when it comes to regulating air quality by removing pollutants from the atmosphere. Toland’s project Dust Blooms juxtaposes the beauty and function of urban flora using a synthesis of artistic and scientific methods to create awareness about the every-day importance of ecosystem services in cities.

Dust Blooms started as field work, with the artist collecting the dust from wild flowers growing at the edges of heavily trafficked streets in Berlin. She then analyzed the samples to determine the type and amount of dust particles that covered the surface of petals.

The next step of her work consisted in visualizing her research. First, through botanical engravings that “graft” together elements of historical botanical illustrations from over 30 authors. These engravings were made from the very street dust collected on site. She also used all sort of everyday consumer goods (plastic dental brush sticks, microfiber wipes, polycarbonate screws, plastic clay, glitter, and granular resins) to create small sculptures based on the micro-morphological features of the Dandelion family. The synthetic plants are displayed “as glorified bricolage of the Anthropocene” on a flower bed while actual atmospheric dust levels are measured with Arduino-powered instruments.

Dust Blooms received an honorary mention at Ars Electronica this year. I got a chance to talk to Alexandra Regan Toland while she was busy preparing her show in Linz, editing a book about the challenges and creative possibilities of soil protection in the age of the Anthropocene, and tending to her many duties as a beekeeper, vermicomposter, forager, forester, and mother.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

Hi Alexandra! While reading the webpage for the project, i was struck by this sentence: “Flowering plants provide a host of ecosystem services in cities, such as climate regulation, the source of nectar and pollen for insects, and the purification of air, water, and soil.” I had no idea that plants were also seen as service providers. Somehow i find it a bit sad to see how we need to instrumentalize nature in order to recognise its value. Could you tell us about the importance of these ‘ecosystem services’ in urban contexts? 

I agree with your critique of the Ecosystem Services (ESS) paradigm but I recognize that it can be an effective way of protecting nature compared with other environmental protection strategies, especially in cities where there isn’t much nature to begin with. In our quest to design and build more sustainable cities, there has been a lot of research on urban ESS as a way of establishing indicators and standards. I see it as my job as an artist to visualize the ideas behind ESS but also to point out obvious ironies and contradictions. For instance, the fate of many medicinal herbs growing along roadsides seems to complicate the neat categories of ESS. These medicinal plants could theoretically be used for healing teas and tonics (a health-providing “service”) but are so filthy you would never want to pick them in the first place. So, it is somewhat ironic that age-old healing herbs like Plantain, St. John’s Wort, Yarrow, and Dandelion end up being healthful after all because they minimize atmospheric dust by cleaning the air of tiny noxious particles with their leaves and petals and holding the soil together with their roots. And they’re pretty to look at, poking up between fields of weathered asphalt and concrete, so their presence has a positive psychological effect too.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

How important is it for a plant to be recognised as a ‘service provider’?


We all – humans and non-humans – have roles and identities in the cosmopolitan order of the city. A plant can be my service provider (as in the filtration service I emphasize in DUST BLOOMS), my neighbour (as in the trees that line my street), my friend (as in the potted plant on my desk), my enemy (as in the allergy-causing summer grasses down the street).

I guess I like to think of ESS as more of a form of community work than instrumentalization. If we choose to see and value urban flora for their civic services – for making the world a better place simply by being there doing their filtering/cooling/sheltering/healing thing – then we might do our service to them in return by protecting biodiversity and open green spaces in cities.

Maybe the ESS paradigm is simply a projection of our own social democratic expectations of civil society to provide basic needs – a world in which all members of society are encouraged and expected to participate in some small way for the well-being of the greater community. So, plants and soil and animals and insects provide services to us while we can and should provide services to them. I’m not entirely sure that ESS can provide the right rules on how those services can be fairly valued and implemented, particularly on the human side, but it is an interesting policy strategy to consider.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, view of the exhibition Lasst Blumen Sprechen – Artificial Nature from 1960, at Museum Schloß Moyland, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, view of the exhibition Lasst Blumen Sprechen – Artificial Nature from 1960, at Museum Schloß Moyland, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, view of the exhibition Lasst Blumen Sprechen – Artificial Nature from 1960, at Museum Schloß Moyland, 2016


Could you tell us about the way plants are filtering atmospheric particulate matter (PM)? How do they perform this task? How much of a contribution can they really make to the purification of the air? Which types of PM do they manage to clean up effectively?


The easiest way to think about dust filtration by plants is to imagine millions of living combs and brushes lining the street. The air passes through layers of undulating biomass that captures everything from larger debris such as weathered bits of trash and dead leaves to tiny diesel particles in the PM fraction. The type and source of dust is pretty easy to recognize under a microscope: pollen and fungal spores are geometric; grains of sand are usually smooth and translucent; soot and tire abrasion detritus is opaque black and edgy looking. All of these particles can get caught in the surface features of trees, bushes, and low-growing herbaceous plants. If you look closely at these surfaces you will notice that some are smooth, but many are hairy, scaly, pocked, wrinkled, folded, furrowed, spiky, or sticky, and these features can be densely or widely packed. So, different plants filter in different ways with different levels of filtration effectivity. Depending on the height, habitus, size and surface morphology of leaves and flowering parts, as well as the distance from the pollution source and pollution intensity, AND the position of neighboring buildings, which can act like canyons or wind tunnels, there can be very different filtering scenarios going on. The time of year is also important to consider, as trees in northern cities lose their leaves in winter. This is incidentally the time of highest levels of atmospheric dust. So, there is unfortunately no straight answer to the “how much” question, but it does make sense to plant as many trees and bushes along busy roads and to allow knee-high wild undergrowth to develop as a buffer between streets and sidewalks, where the pollution from exhaust is actually being churned out.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


Beyond its artistic qualities, Dust Bloom seems to have made a valuable contribution to the knowledge related to the function of urban flora. How did you divide or distribute art and science in your project? Was the research process conducted strictly following scientific protocols?


I learned about the role of plants as atmospheric filters from colleagues in my PhD research program at the TU-Berlin‘s Institute of Ecology back in 2010. I was fascinated by the idea of living dust filters and knew I wanted to collaborate with the lead researcher, Ina Säumel, at some point on an art-science project. When Museum Schloß Moyland invited me to make a new series of botanical sculptures for a show on artificial nature they were preparing, I decided to explore concepts of plant morphology through sculpture and approached Ina with the idea of flower filtration, because up to that point no one had studied the filtration potential of flowers.

I didn’t really divide the “science” and “art” parts of the project because I saw it as an opportunity to delve into the phenomenon using several different methods: sculptural prototyping; historical analysis presented as a series of engravings; microscopic analysis of flower morphology and dust types; cartographic analysis and site survey; direct measurement using Arduino-powered dust sensors; and photographic documentation of different scales of observation.

All parts of the project were trial and error. There were scientific protocols for microscopic analysis, artistic protocols for mixing engraving pigments, and programming protocols for the dust filter. But there were a lot of “mistakes” that led to new discoveries and new questions as well. For example, according to the protocol we developed for the measuring campaign, we weren’t supposed to collect flowers within 72 hours of a rainstorm. In the end, as we were pressed for time and still hadn’t found any flowering St. Johns Wort, we picked some specimens after a rain shower anyway, fully expecting that all the dust had washed away. We were surprised to discover that some particles were still there embedded in the tissue, leading to new questions about how plants physiologically and perhaps genetically change based on their exposure to dust… Then, in the studio, I had been working with a much higher concentration of dust to medium, but after going away for a weekend I realized that the mixture would foul after a few days so ended up completely changing my pigment recipe. (The pigment is stable when it dries on the printed page.) In the end, knowledge creation, whether it’s relegated to the sciences or the arts, is a result of trial and error and methodological triangulation, meaning as social scientist W.L Neuman says, “we take multiple measures of the same phenomena and build on the principle that we learn more by observing from multiple perspectives than by looking from only a single perspective”.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

The honorary mention at ars electronica is a sign that the artistic community responds with enthusiasm to your work but did you receive some feedback, opinions and remarks from the scientific community as well?


Other than a few presentations at the University, we haven’t published any papers for scientific journals yet, but would like to do so. To be accepted as sound science, the methods and measuring procedures must be clear but there must also be enough data to conduct statistical analysis. By the time the exhibition was set up in June, we didn’t have enough data from our measuring campaign and decided to continue the campaign and just exhibit the field and lab protocols so people could follow the process. We presented a research log with the one full data set we did have (dandelion), and detailed “character profiles” for each species. The field data from the dust filters was also incomplete, so we just showed how it worked in the museum. So, the project is most definitely still a work in progress.

In general, though, the resonance from the environmental science community has been very positive and encouraging. I think a lot of scientists are willing to work with artists, it’s just tricky to find funding and figure out ways of integrating artists into already running teaching and research programs. Also, the time and space constraints of an exhibition can limit the kind of work that can be done. It’s important that if a project identifies as art-science it has to work as both. Showing the methods and shortcomings and open questions of any research project is good practice. But those things can easily get obscured by the aesthetics of exhibitions.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

Why did you chose the dandelion as the hero of the project?


The dandelion is a special flower. There is something magical about the achenial seeds with their hairy pappus ‘wings,’ the milky, straw-like hollowness of the stem, and the curly bronze phyllary leaves at the base. The dandelion is a ‘model species,’ widely referenced in ecological research because of its highly adaptive morphological and genetic properties. Dandelions can adjust their size, shape, and metabolic properties to better deal with stress factors such as being grazed in rural locations, or dealing with pollution in urban ones. Its super adaptability makes the dandelion a so-called “super-species” – a complex group of species so closely related that, taxonomically, they are nearly impossible to tell apart. To model the dandelion is to honor 30 million years of subtle shape shifting through sculptural research. For me, the dandelion is also a symbol of graceful diaspora, which I think is comforting for many people around the world, including myself, who find themselves for better or for worse far away from “home.” The idea that the dandelion can spread wide and far and physically adapt to its new settings is inspiring and poignant. I collected the first flower samples with my daughter along the former East-West border in Berlin. Only a generation ago these seeds might have been the only organisms to parachute across the Oberbaum Bridge, where today thousands of cars speed over without a second thought leaving trails of dust behind them.

The research process involved a measuring campaign to examine dust from the flowers of several species at several locations in Berlin. What did you learn during this stage of the research?

Together with urban ecology students at the Technical University of Berlin, under the direction of professors Gerd Wessolek, Ina Säumel, and myself, a measuring campaign was carried out to examine dust from surfaces of flowers at multiple locations in the city from April to June 2016. Based on existing dust filtration data from Ina’s previous work, historical relevance found in old medicinals, a site analysis and knowledge of blooming periods, and of course aesthetic interest, we narrowed down our selection to the following plants: Achillea millefolium (common yarrow), Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort), Chelidonium majus (greater calendine), Geranium robertianum (Red Robin), Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort), Plantago major (broadleaf plantain), Taraxacum officinale (common dandelion). Ten flowers per species were picked from major roadways in Berlin with an average daily traffic rate of more than 50,000 motorized vehicles. Five petals were then examined from each flower. Using light microscopy, it was possible to quantitatively estimate the surface area of a flower and qualitatively describe the morphological characteristics of individual flowers, as well as determine the type and amount of dust particles captured on petal surfaces. Each step of the process was documented in a series of photographs and field and lab reports.

I think the most important thing we learned in this process was the limitations of our own human capacity for work. Ina and I are both moms, juggling work and family life. We didn’t have as many students as we were hoping to attract with the project, so the burden of measurement fell on two people who had their own busy schedules at the university. It was really difficult to locate all target species in the determined 50,000 plus areas at exactly the right distance from the road, and exactly right time of peak flowering. We were also weather dependent. We had to collect our specimens during days with no rainfall, get them to the lab before wilting in the summer heat, and then not damage the delicate petals in the process of arranging them under the microscope. In the end, we had enough materials to exhibit by June, but realized as the exhibition came around that the measuring campaign was far from over.


I was very intrigued by the ‘representation’ chapter of the work. Your botanical engravings depict the evolution of graphic representation of weedy species over 350 years. How has the representation evolved over the years? Is it a question of the techniques used to draw the plants or is it because the plants themselves have changed their aspect?


Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison wrote a wonderful book called Objectivity (2007, Zone Books) that follows the history of visual representation and the changing relationships between scientists and illustrators over the course of several centuries. They discuss how botanists have relied on the help of artists right up until the present. “As long as botanists insisted on figures that represented the characteristic form of a species or even genus, photographs and other mechanical images of individual plants in all their particularity would have little appeal. Truth-to-nature spoke louder in this case than mechanical objectivity” (p109). However, there is a great deal of difference in the representations of these “true types” over time.

The plants have stayed the same, while our interest in them, as well as our technical means of representation continues to change. While pictures in medicinal herbals once included roots and underground plant parts, which were of great value to physicians and apothecaries, later illustrative works practically excluded the representation of roots to focus on flowering and fruiting parts, as they were thought to be more essential to taxonomic systems from Linnaeus (1707-1778) onwards.

As European colonial explorers ‘discovered’ a seemingly infinite amount of new plant species, it was botanical artists such as Claude Aubriet (1665-1742) and Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), who were instrumental in establishing their economic value in finely illustrated identification manuals known as Flora – in the documentation of new cash crops in colonial contexts; for the scientific advancement of botanical theory; and for the growing interest in horticulture in the gardens of affluent patrons. Ironically, the chosen species for DUST BLOOMS have appeared as prized medicinal herbs in herbals such as William Woodville’s Medical Botany (1792-1793), as well as appearing as villainous weeds in Emil Korsmo’s Anatomy of Weeds (1954). What was once a benefit to the physician became over time a costly detriment to the agronomist. These changes in representational focus inspired me to do a mash-up of different historical periods. If you look closely, you can see the pixelated rendering of the bit-map needed to make the engraving plates, as well as the inclusion of little insects flying around with brushes and q-tips. So, the historical illusion is broken. In a way, the engravings are a kind of digital grafting, akin to the grafting of economically valuable fruit and nut trees, but for weeds, which are valuable in their own way in the ESS context.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


How important was it for you to use “anthropocene’ materials in the artworks?

There is a lot of critique on the legitimacy of the “Anthropocene” – as a term, a field of research, a moment in time, a social order, and as an epistemology. I don’t want to get into that debate here, but I will say that it was important for me to reflect Anthropocene ideas, such as the ESS paradigm and the problem of air pollution, in the very materials I was using for the artworks. Early on I knew I wanted to use street dust as a pigment in some way. The chemical composition of the street dust is unique to our times and adds a contemporary layer to the historical engravings. The materials used in the botanical models are also sourced from the very world they seek to understand. Characteristic inventions of our present society, like plastic dental brush-sticks, microfiber cleaning wipes, polycarbonate screws, plastic clay, and aquarium tubing, are fused together as material bricolage of the Anthropocene. What in other contexts is used to clean, decorate, or hold things together can be repurposed to represent environmental phenomena. Imagine all the R&D that led to Swiffer wipes to keep our homes dust-free. Well, we can similarly imagine the evolutionary R&D that went into the morphology of flowering plants, and they are out there cleaning for free! There has been a lot of R&D in the fields of biomimicry and geomimicry, looking to natural patterns and processes for solutions to human problems. The classic example is George de Mestral’s invention of Velcro based on the hooked burrs of the Burdock plant. I was trying to echo that process in reverse, by using human inventions to model nature as it appears in a very humanly altered state.

Thanks Alex!

Related story: Eulogy for the weeds. An interview with Ellie Irons.

Alchemy. The Great Art

In medieval Europe, alchemy was the Ars magna, the ‘Great Art’.


Sarah Schönfeld, All you can feel, Crystal Meth (Planets), photo-pharmaceutical series 2013. Crystal Meth on photo-negative, enlarged as c-print


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alchemy. The Great Art, a show which will close this Sunday at Berlin’s Kulturforum (i’m writing this post in a hurry in the hope that some of you might still catch it) explores the enduring relationship between alchemy and art. The alliance between the two fields is an intimate one: both art and alchemy are about creation, both rely on experimentation, knowledge-seeking and passion.

Mixing historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, the exhibition also rehabilitates alchemical practices and illuminates their legacy. We often dismiss alchemy as a charlatan pseudo-science which sole purpose was chrysopoeia (the making of gold.) Most of its adepts had a very modern pursuit though: they wanted to imitate the divine act of creation itself and even to surpass it. This drive to transmute existing matter into a man-made compounds still influences many artists (and scientists) today, especially the ones whose work investigates processual transformation of material.

The parallels between the old-time practice and contemporary life do not end there. The need to mine the alchemical “first matter” (prima materia) from below ground echoes our ‘extractivist’ society. As for the creatures of doctors Faustus and Frankenstein and the disquieting new forms of life elaborated in research laboratories, they are the scions of the homunculus, this tiny human being grown in a glass jar and depicted in medieval manuscripts.

While searching for the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of immortality or the panacea, some experimenters made – sometimes by chance – discoveries that paved the way for modern chemistry and pharmacology. The by-products of alchemists’ exercises, such as porcelain, gold-ruby glass and phosphorus, are still very much valued today.

Alchemy. The Great Art manages to pack the historical, the spiritual, the hocus-pocus and the protoscience dimensions of alchemy into a rich and fascinating show. My pitiful article, however, doesn’t have the ambition to cover the multiple perspectives on alchemy presented at Kunstforum. It will mostly look at a few artworks i discovered while visiting the show:


Sarah Schönfeld, Hero’s Journey (Lamp), 2014. © Sarah Schönfeld


Sarah Schönfeld, Hero’s Journey (Lamp), 2014. © Sarah Schönfeld. Photo via tissue magazine

One of the focal points of the exhibition is Sarah Schönfeld‘s Hero’s Journey (Lamp). Over a period of ten weeks, the artist asked partygoers of Berghain, allegedly Berlin’s most exclusive nightclub, to donate their urine. She then treated the yellow liquid with an antimicrobial agent often used as a preservative in the cosmetic industry.

The biological excretions are now contained inside an illuminated glass case. The urine shines like gold and constitutes a kind of monument to the club’s mythical status as well as to the ecstatic emotions induced by recreational drugs.


Sarah Schönfeld, Adrenaline – Adrenaline on photonegative analogue, enlarged. From the All you can feel series


Sarah Schönfeld, MDMA on photonegative analogue, enlarged. From the All you can feel series

For the All You Can Feel photo series, Schönfeld developed a process that she calls “modern alchemy.” She sprinkled all sorts of mind-altering substances, from caffeine to neurotransmitters, onto photo negatives. The results of the chemical reactions between the negative’s emulsion and the drug was then submitted to photographic process.

When asked by VICE how she managed to create images that match so adequately the feeling that these various drugs impart, the artist answered:

Well, I didn’t think that when I first produced the work, but after I published the book (also called All You Can Feel) a lot of people said yes, this is how it feels. And what was really interesting is that I got a call from a drug rehabilitation center and they said that they had run their own little experiment. Without explaining the images, they had shown the book to their patients and asked them to pick a favorite. Every single one of them chose their drug of dependence, with 100 percent accuracy. Even the secretary who only ever drank coffee chose caffeine.


Heinz Hajek-Halke, Untitled, 1950-1970. © Heinz Hajek-Halke / Collection Michael Ruetz / Agentur Focus

It was particularly interested in the suggestion that photography, an artistic discipline born out of darkrooms and chemical laboratory experiments, used to be surrounded by an alchemical aura. Schönfeld’s work evoke photograms, the photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive paper which is then exposed to light. There were some beautiful examples of photograms by Walter Ziegler in the show but i can’t find any image of them online, alas!

Heinz Hajek-Halke also experimented with photographic processes, exposures, instruments and materials. To create his “colour lucidograms” series, he drizzled soot-blackened glass negatives with liquids such as turpentine to produce craquelure-like patterns as the original congealed.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Der Lauf Der Dinge/The Way Things Go, 1987

Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) is a famous video that follows a 30 minute long, uninterrupted chain of physical and chemical experiments full of carefully prepared explosions, accidents, fires, etc.


The Ripley Scroll, 18th century (Mellon MS 41, Beinecke Library). Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


The ‘Ripley Scrowle’ (detail), 18th century. Image: Beinecke Library


The ‘Ripley Scrowle’ (detail), 18th century. Image: Beinecke Library

The copy of the Ripley Scroll i saw at Kulturforum is one of the most exquisite artifacts i’ve seen this year.

There are some twenty copies of these alchemical scrolls in existence. Each of them is a variation on a lost 15th century original. The manuscripts use pictorial cryptograms to detail the various processes involved in the preparation of the philosopher’s stone.

Although they are named after the English priest, author and alchemist George Ripley, there is no evidence that he designed them himself. The link with the alchemist is that the elaborate imagery of the emblems derives from his verses.


Traité de Chymie, France, circa 1700, S. 10/11. © The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

This watercolor shows that many early alchemists used instruments similar to the ones pharmacists or chemists would use later.


Natascha Sonnenschein, Paradies der Künstlichkeit, 2001. © Natascha Sonnenschein / VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn 2017


Facettierte Deckelflasche mit Montierung, circa 1700. © bpk / Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Sigismund Bacstrom, Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity, 1797


Johann Friedrich Böttger, Gold- and Silver nuggets, circa 1713. © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Porzellansammlung. Photo: Hans-Peter Klut, Elke Estel

One gold, one silver nuggets, allegedly transmuted by Johann Friedrich Boettger for King August of Poland in 1713. Boettger probably made them from ducats to win the King’s favour.


Louis-Jacques Goussier: Chymie, Laboratoire et Table des Rapports, in: Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, 1771. © bpk / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek. Photo: Dietmar Katz


Yves Klein, Anthropometrie in IKB on Monogold, 1965 (exhibition poster), Galerie Alexandre Iolas, Paris. © Yves Klein / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

More views of the exhibition space:


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alchemy. The Great Art, an exhibition curated by Jörg Völlnagel, remains open until Sunday 23 July at Kulturforum in Berlin.

Previously: The Occult, Witchcraft & Magic. An Illustrated History and Artefact: are technology and magical thinking really incompatible?, From swarms of synthetic life forms to neo-alchemy. An interview with Adam Brown.

Alchemy. The Great Art

In medieval Europe, alchemy was the Ars magna, the ‘Great Art’.


Sarah Schönfeld, All you can feel, Crystal Meth (Planets), photo-pharmaceutical series 2013. Crystal Meth on photo-negative, enlarged as c-print


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alchemy. The Great Art, a show which will close this Sunday at Berlin’s Kulturforum (i’m writing this post in a hurry in the hope that some of you might still catch it) explores the enduring relationship between alchemy and art. The alliance between the two fields is an intimate one: both art and alchemy are about creation, both rely on experimentation, knowledge-seeking and passion.

Mixing historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, the exhibition also rehabilitates alchemical practices and illuminates their legacy. We often dismiss alchemy as a charlatan pseudo-science which sole purpose was chrysopoeia (the making of gold.) Most of its adepts had a very modern pursuit though: they wanted to imitate the divine act of creation itself and even to surpass it. This drive to transmute existing matter into a man-made compounds still influences many artists (and scientists) today, especially the ones whose work investigates processual transformation of material.

The parallels between the old-time practice and contemporary life do not end there. The need to mine the alchemical “first matter” (prima materia) from below ground echoes our ‘extractivist’ society. As for the creatures of doctors Faustus and Frankenstein and the disquieting new forms of life elaborated in research laboratories, they are the scions of the homunculus, this tiny human being grown in a glass jar and depicted in medieval manuscripts.

While searching for the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of immortality or the panacea, some experimenters made – sometimes by chance – discoveries that paved the way for modern chemistry and pharmacology. The by-products of alchemists’ exercises, such as porcelain, gold-ruby glass and phosphorus, are still very much valued today.

Alchemy. The Great Art manages to pack the historical, the spiritual, the hocus-pocus and the protoscience dimensions of alchemy into a rich and fascinating show. My pitiful article, however, doesn’t have the ambition to cover the multiple perspectives on alchemy presented at Kunstforum. It will mostly look at a few artworks i discovered while visiting the show:


Sarah Schönfeld, Hero’s Journey (Lamp), 2014. © Sarah Schönfeld


Sarah Schönfeld, Hero’s Journey (Lamp), 2014. © Sarah Schönfeld. Photo via tissue magazine

One of the focal points of the exhibition is Sarah Schönfeld‘s Hero’s Journey (Lamp). Over a period of ten weeks, the artist asked partygoers of Berghain, allegedly Berlin’s most exclusive nightclub, to donate their urine. She then treated the yellow liquid with an antimicrobial agent often used as a preservative in the cosmetic industry.

The biological excretions are now contained inside an illuminated glass case. The urine shines like gold and constitutes a kind of monument to the club’s mythical status as well as to the ecstatic emotions induced by recreational drugs.


Sarah Schönfeld, Adrenaline – Adrenaline on photonegative analogue, enlarged. From the All you can feel series


Sarah Schönfeld, MDMA on photonegative analogue, enlarged. From the All you can feel series

For the All You Can Feel photo series, Schönfeld developed a process that she calls “modern alchemy.” She sprinkled all sorts of mind-altering substances, from caffeine to neurotransmitters, onto photo negatives. The results of the chemical reactions between the negative’s emulsion and the drug was then submitted to photographic process.

When asked by VICE how she managed to create images that match so adequately the feeling that these various drugs impart, the artist answered:

Well, I didn’t think that when I first produced the work, but after I published the book (also called All You Can Feel) a lot of people said yes, this is how it feels. And what was really interesting is that I got a call from a drug rehabilitation center and they said that they had run their own little experiment. Without explaining the images, they had shown the book to their patients and asked them to pick a favorite. Every single one of them chose their drug of dependence, with 100 percent accuracy. Even the secretary who only ever drank coffee chose caffeine.


Heinz Hajek-Halke, Untitled, 1950-1970. © Heinz Hajek-Halke / Collection Michael Ruetz / Agentur Focus

It was particularly interested in the suggestion that photography, an artistic discipline born out of darkrooms and chemical laboratory experiments, used to be surrounded by an alchemical aura. Schönfeld’s work evoke photograms, the photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive paper which is then exposed to light. There were some beautiful examples of photograms by Walter Ziegler in the show but i can’t find any image of them online, alas!

Heinz Hajek-Halke also experimented with photographic processes, exposures, instruments and materials. To create his “colour lucidograms” series, he drizzled soot-blackened glass negatives with liquids such as turpentine to produce craquelure-like patterns as the original congealed.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Der Lauf Der Dinge/The Way Things Go, 1987

Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) is a famous video that follows a 30 minute long, uninterrupted chain of physical and chemical experiments full of carefully prepared explosions, accidents, fires, etc.


The Ripley Scroll, 18th century (Mellon MS 41, Beinecke Library). Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


The ‘Ripley Scrowle’ (detail), 18th century. Image: Beinecke Library


The ‘Ripley Scrowle’ (detail), 18th century. Image: Beinecke Library

The copy of the Ripley Scroll i saw at Kulturforum is one of the most exquisite artifacts i’ve seen this year.

There are some twenty copies of these alchemical scrolls in existence. Each of them is a variation on a lost 15th century original. The manuscripts use pictorial cryptograms to detail the various processes involved in the preparation of the philosopher’s stone.

Although they are named after the English priest, author and alchemist George Ripley, there is no evidence that he designed them himself. The link with the alchemist is that the elaborate imagery of the emblems derives from his verses.


Traité de Chymie, France, circa 1700, S. 10/11. © The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

This watercolor shows that many early alchemists used instruments similar to the ones pharmacists or chemists would use later.


Natascha Sonnenschein, Paradies der Künstlichkeit, 2001. © Natascha Sonnenschein / VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn 2017


Facettierte Deckelflasche mit Montierung, circa 1700. © bpk / Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Sigismund Bacstrom, Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity, 1797


Johann Friedrich Böttger, Gold- and Silver nuggets, circa 1713. © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Porzellansammlung. Photo: Hans-Peter Klut, Elke Estel

One gold, one silver nuggets, allegedly transmuted by Johann Friedrich Boettger for King August of Poland in 1713. Boettger probably made them from ducats to win the King’s favour.


Louis-Jacques Goussier: Chymie, Laboratoire et Table des Rapports, in: Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, 1771. © bpk / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek. Photo: Dietmar Katz


Yves Klein, Anthropometrie in IKB on Monogold, 1965 (exhibition poster), Galerie Alexandre Iolas, Paris. © Yves Klein / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

More views of the exhibition space:


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alchemy. The Great Art, an exhibition curated by Jörg Völlnagel, remains open until Sunday 23 July at Kulturforum in Berlin.

Previously: The Occult, Witchcraft & Magic. An Illustrated History and Artefact: are technology and magical thinking really incompatible?, From swarms of synthetic life forms to neo-alchemy. An interview with Adam Brown.

Interview with James Bridle about human deskilling and machine understanding


James Bridle, Untitled (Autonomous Trap 001)

Tesla customers who want to take advantage of its cars AutoPilot mode are required to agree that the system is in a “public beta phase”. They are also expected to keep their hands on the wheel and “maintain control and responsibility for the vehicle.”

Almost a year ago, Joshua Brown was driving on the highway in Florida when he decided to put his Tesla car into self-driving mode. It was a bright Spring day and the vehicle’s sensors failed to distinguish a white tractor-trailer crossing the highway against a bright sky. The car didn’t brake and Brown was the first person to die in a self-driving car accident.

Autonomous cars have since been associated with a growing number of errors, accidents, glitches and other malfunctions. Interestingly, human trust in these technologies doesn’t seem to falter: we assume that the technology ‘knows’ what it is doing and are lulled into a false sense of safety. Tech companies are only too happy to confirm that bias and usually blame the humans for any crash or flaw.

James Bridle, Autonomous Trap 001 (Salt Ritual, Mount Parnassus, Work In Progress), 2017


James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao

James Bridle‘s solo show Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky, which recently opened at NOME project in Berlin, explores the arrival of technologies of prediction and automation into our everyday lives.

The most discussed work in the show is a video showing a driverless car entrapped inside a double circle of road markings made with salt. The vehicle, seemingly unable to make sense of the conflicting information, barely moves back and forth as if under the spell of a mysterious force.

The work demonstrates admirably the limitation of machine perception, the pitfalls of a technology which inner working and logic is completely opaque to us, the difference between human and machine comprehension, between accuracy and reliability.

I sometimes wonder how aware most of us really are of the impact that self-driving vehicles will have on our life: soon we might not be able to read maps not just because GPS have made that skill superfluous but because these maps will be unintelligible to us; we might even be seen as too unreliable behind a wheel and be forbidden to drive cars (we’ll have sex instead apparently.)

Taking as their central subject the self-driving car, the works in the exhibition test the limits of human knowing and machine perception, strategize modes of resistance to algorithmic regimes, and devise new myths and poetic possibilities for an age of computation.

It feels strangely ominous to write about autonomous machines on the 1st of May, a day celebrated as International Workers’ Day. After all, these smart systems are going to ‘put us out of job‘. And truck drivers, taxi drivers, delivery drivers are among the professions which will be hit first.


James Bridle, Untitled (Activated Cloud), 2017

I asked the artist, theorist and writer to tell us more about the exhibition:

Hi James! I had a look at the video and not a lot is happening once the car is inside the circle. Which is exactly what you wanted to show of course. But for all i know, the machine could have stopped to work just because it never worked as an autonomous vehicle in the first place and you could be hiding inside making it move a bit. Could you explain what the machine sees and what causes the car to stall?

The car in the video is not autonomous. My main inspiration for the project was in understanding machine learning, and the system I developed – based on the research and work of many others – was entirely in software. I kitted out a regular car with cameras and sensors – some off the shelf, some I developed myself – and drove it around for days on end. This data is then fed into a neural network, a kind of software modelled originally on the brain itself, which learns to make associations between the datapoints: knowing the kind of speed, or steering angle, which should be associated with certain road conditions, it learns to reproduce them.

I’m really interested in this kind of AI which instead of attempting to describe all the rules of the world from the outset, develops them as a result of direct experience. The result of this form of training is both very powerful, and sometimes very unexpected and strange, as we’re becoming aware of through so many stories about AI “mistakes” and biases. As these systems become more and more embedded in the world, i think it’s really important to understand them better, and also participate in their creation.

My software is developed to the point where it can read the road ahead, keep to its lane, react to other vehicles and turnings – but in a very limited way. I certainly would not put my life in its hands, but it does give me a window into the way in which such systems function. In the Activations series of prints in the exhibition, which show the way in which the machine translates incoming video data into information, you can see the things highlighted as most significant: the edges of the road, and the white lines which direct it. Any machine trained to obey the rules of the road would and should obey the “rules” of the autonomous trap because it’s simply a no entry sign – but whether such rules are included in the training data of the new generation of “intelligent” vehicles is an open question.


James Bridle, Untitled (Activation 002), 2017


James Bridle, Untitled (Activation 004), 2017

It is a bit daunting to realise that a technology as sophisticated as a driverless car can be fooled by a couple of kilos of salt. In a sense your role fulfills the same role as the one of hackers who enter a system to point to its flaws and gaps and thus help the developers and corporations to fix the problem. Have you had any feedback from people in the car industry after the work was published in various magazines?

The autonomous trap is indeed a potential white hat or black hat op. In machine learning, this might be called an “adversarial example” – that is, a situation deliberately engineered to trick the system, so it can learn from and defend against such tricks in the future. It might be useful to some researcher, I don’t really know. But as I’m interested in the ways in which machine intelligence differs from human intelligence, I’ve been following closely many techniques for generating adversarial examples – research papers which show, for example, the ways in which image classifiers can be fooled either with entirely bizarre random-looking images, or with images that, to a human, are indistinguishable. What I like about the trap is that it’s an adversarial example that sits in the middle – that is recognisable to both machine and human senses. As a result, it’s both offensive and communicative – it’s really trying to find a middle or common ground, a space of potential cooperation rather than competition.

You placed the car inside a salt circle on a road leading to Mount Parnassus (instead of on a car park or any other urban location any artist dealing with tech would do!). The experiment with the autonomous car is thus surrounded by mythology, Dyonisian mysteries and magic.Why do you embed this sophisticated technology into myths and enigmatic forces?

The mythological aspects of the project weren’t planned from the beginning, but they have been becoming more pronounced in my work for some time now. While working on the Cloud Index project last year I spent a lot of time with medieval mystical texts, and particularly The Cloud of Unknowing, as a way of thinking through other meanings of “the cloud”, as both computer network and way of knowing.

In particular, I’m interested in a language that admits doubt and uncertainty, that acknowledges that there are things we cannot know yet must take into account, in a way that contemporary technological discourse does not. This seems like a crucial form of discourse for an interconnected yet increasingly complex and fragmented world.

In the autonomous car project, the association with Mount Parnassus and its mythology came about quite simply because I was driving around Attica in order to train the car, and it’s pretty much impossible to drive around Greece without encountering sites from ancient mythology. And this mythology is a continuous thread, not just something from the history books. As I was driving around, I was listening to Robert Graves’ Greek Myths, which connects Greek mythology to pre-Classical animism and ritual cults, as well as to the birth of Christianity and other monotheistic religions. There’s a cave on the side of Mount Parnassus which was sacred, like all rustic caves, to Pan, but has also been written about as a hiding place for the infant Zeus, and various nymphs. The same cave was used by Greek partisans hiding from the Ottoman armies in the nineteenth century and the Nazis occupiers in the twentieth, and no doubt on many other occasions throughout history – there’s a reason those stories were written about that place, and the writing of those stories allowed for that place to retain its power and use. Mythology and magic have always been forms of encoded and active story-telling, and this is what I believe and want technology to be: an agential and inherently political activity, understood as something participatory, illuminating, and potentially emancipatory.


James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao


James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao

Your practice as an artist and thinker is widely recognised so i suspect that you could have knocked on the door of Tesla or Volkswagen and get an autonomous car to play with. Why did you find it so important to build your own self-driving car?

I think it’s incredibly important to understand the medium you’re working with, which in my case was machine vision and machine intelligence as applied to a self-driving car – something that makes its own way in the world. By understanding the materiality of the medium, you really get a sense of a much wider range of possibilities for it – something you will never do with someone else’s machine. I’m not really interested in what Tesla or VW want to do with a self-driving car – although I have a fairly good idea – rather, I’m interested in thinking through and with this technology, and proposing alternative pathways for it – such as getting lost and therefore generating new and unexpected experiences, rather than ones pre-programmed by the manufacturer. Moreover, I’m interested in the very fact that it’s possible for me to do this, and for showing that it’s possible, which is itself today a radical act.

I believe there’s a concrete and causal relationship between the complexity of the systems we encounter every day, the opacity with which most of those systems are constructed or described, and fundamental, global issues of inequality, violence, populism and fundamentalism. Only through self-education, self-organisation, and new forms of systemic literacy can we counter these currents: programming is one form of systemic literacy, demonstrating the accessibility and comprehensibility of these technologies is another.

The salt circle is associated with protection. Do you think our society should be protected from autonomous vehicles?

In certain ways, absolutely. There are many potential benefits to autonomous vehicles, in terms of road safety and ecology, but like all of our technologies there’s also great risk, particularly when control of these vehicles is entirely privatised and corporatised. The best model for an autonomous vehicle future is basically good public transport – so why aren’t we building that? At the moment, the biggest players in autonomous vehicles are the traditional vehicle manufacturers – hardly beacons of social or environmental responsibility – and Silicon Valley zaibatsus such as Google and Uber, whose primary motivation is financialising virtual labour until they develop AI which can cut humans out of the loop entirely. For me, the autonomous vehicle stands in most particularly for the deskilling and automation of all forms of labour (including, in Google’s case, cognitive labour), and as such is a tool for degrading individual and collective agency. This will happen first to truck and taxi drivers, but will slowly extend to most of the workforce which, despite accelerationist dreams, is currently shredding rather than building a social framework which might support a low-work future. So, looked at that way, the corporate-controlled autonomous vehicle and automation in general is absolutely something that should be resisted, while it fails to serve the interest of most of the people it effects.

In all things, technological determinism – the idea that a particular outcome is inevitable because the technology for it exists – must be opposed. Knowing where the off switch is a vital and necessary complement to the kind of democratic involvement in the design process described above.

The artist statement in the catalogue of the show says that you worked with software and geography. I understand the necessity of the software but geography? What was the role and importance of geography in the project? How did you work with it?

The question which I kept returning to while working on the project, alongside “what does it mean for me to make an autonomous car?” is “what does it mean to make it here?” – that is, not on a test track in Bavaria or a former military base in Silicon Valley, but in Greece, a place with a very different material history and social present. How does a machine see the world when its experience is of fields, mountains, and winding tracks, rather than Californian highways and German autobahns? What is the role of automation in a place already suffering under austerity and unemployment – but which also has always produced its own, characteristic responses to instability? One of the things I find fascinating about the so-called autonomous vehicle is that, in comparison to the traditional car, it’s really as far from autonomous as you can get. It must constantly return to the network, constantly update itself, constantly observe and learn from the world, in order to be able to operate. In this way, it also seems to embody some potentially more connected and more community-minded world – more akin to some of the social movements so active in Greece today than the atomised, alienated passengers of late capitalism.


James Bridle, Gradient Ascent, 2016


James Bridle, Gradient Ascent, 2016

In the video and catalogue text entitled “Gradient Ascent”, Mount Parnassus and the journeys around it becomes an allegory both for general curiosity, and for specific problem-solving: one of the precise techniques in computer science for maximising a complex function is the random walk. Re-instituting geography within the domain of the machine becomes one of the ways of humanising it.

I was reading on Creators that this is just the beginning of a series of experiments for the car. Do you already know where you will go next with the technology?

I’m still quite resistant to the idea of asking a manufacturer for an actual vehicle, and for now my resources are pretty limited, but it might be possible to move onto the mechanical part of the project in other ways – I’ve had some interest from academic and research groups. I think there’s lots more to be done in exploring other uses for the autonomous vehicle – as well as questions of agency and liability. What might autonomous vehicles do to borders, for example, when their driverless nature makes them more akin to packets on a borderless digital network? What new forms of community, as hinted above, might they engender? On the other hand, I never set out to build a fully functioning car, but to understand and think through the processes of developing it, and to learn from the journey itself. I think I’m more interested in the future of machine intelligence and machinic thinking than I am in the specifics of autonomous vehicles, but I hope it won’t be the last time I get to collaborate with a system like this.

Thanks James!

James Bridle’s solo show Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky is at NOME project in Berlin until July 29, 2017

Proceed at Your Own Risk. Tales of dystopian food & health industries


Kirsten Stolle, Protecting Its Own Tail (from the series Monsanto Intervention), 2013. Collage on magazine advertisement

Pharming, or pharmaceutical farming, uses genetic engineering to insert genes into host animals or plants so that they produce substances that may be used as pharmaceuticals. The process allows the production of cheaper drugs on tap. “If you need more, you breed more,” a spokesman for a pharming company told the NYT back in 2009.

Unsurprisingly, the technology is controversial, especially when it comes to animal welfare. These are animals genetically engineered for the sole purpose of serving as pharmaceutical factories, as if they were walking and breathing manufacturing plants rather than sentient creatures.

There are other concerns as well: the animals could suffer, their germs contaminate the drug, the animals could escape and breed with others, spreading the gene with unpredictable direct and indirect consequences, offspring of transgenic animals have been born with abnormalities, etc.

Animal pharming might sound like bad science fiction to many of us but it is already a growing business. In 2009, the FDA approved the sale of the first drug produced by goats genetically engineered to secrete the protein Antithrombin in their milk. The compound is then used to create anti-clotting drugs for by patients with a rare blood disorder. Since 2009, other animals have been genetically modified to produce medications needed by human.


Kirsten Stolle, AP 10 (from the series Animal Pharm), 2014. Collage on paper

The practice hasn’t been much analyzed and debated in the mainstream press but artist Kirsten Stolle is inviting the public to reflect more closely on this new use of genetic engineering with a series of collages titled ANIMAL PHARM. Bearing a title that evokes Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm, the intriguing and delicate collages comment on the insidious connections between greedy corporations, complicit governments and public health (as well as the well being of other living creatures.)

Animal Pharm is part of Stolle’s broader investigation into industrial food and drug production and the lack of transparency and governmental oversight that surrounds them. The artist is currently having a solo show at NOME gallery in Berlin. The exhibition presents not only the Animal Pharm series but also Monsanto Intervention, a group of collages about the biotechnology corporation that poisoned the environment with its Agent Orange, floods the world with genetically modified crops and pollution, bullies small farmers to protect their seed patents, and is now attempting to portray itself as the spearhead of the green revolution built around “sustainability”.

In Monsanto Intervention, Stolle submits the advertisements that the GM giant bought in 1940s-1960s magazines to collage, cuttings and drawings that subtly but efficiently brings the original propaganda into a more truthful but also sinister light.

I caught up with the artist as she was flying to New York where her work is part of Evidentiary Realism, an exhibition that opened a few days ago at Fridman Gallery.


Kirsten Stolle, War In Paradise (from the series Monsanto Intervention), 2013. Collage on magazine advertisement


Kirsten Stolle, It Shouldn’t Happen (from the series Monsanto Intervention), 2013

Hi Kirsten! The issues addressed in Animal Pharm are quite disturbing. The series looks at the use of genetic engineering to produce pharmaceuticals within host animals. How much is that pharmaceutical research still confined into labs? How much of its results is already available at the chemist now? Are we already buying some of that without even realising it?

Most drugs produced within genetically engineered (GE) animals target specific rare or specialized diseases, and are given in consultation with a patient’s doctor, not through a general pharmacy. In 2009 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved and released guidelines for the commercialization of genetically engineered/transgenic animals. This included approval for the first transgenically derived drug, the human anti-clotting protein antithrombin (manufacturer name ATryn) in the milk of genetically engineered goats. Historically, the protein has been extracted through human blood donation and is time-consuming and highly regulated. Using GE animals to produce drugs more quickly, and with perhaps less oversight and regulation is attractive to the pharmaceutical companies.

Pharmaceutical companies and universities continue to actively pursue drug trials in genetically engineered animals. Creating drugs within animals brings up a wide range of moral and ethical questions and propelled me to examine “pharming” through my project Animal Pharm. Issues related to animal welfare, breaching species barrier for economic benefit, and the implications of patenting potential new forms of life are considerable. As a society, the ethical and social concerns, along with the unintended consequences of this experimental science need to be fully transparent, further investigated and brought to peoples’ attention.”


Kirsten Stolle, AP 8 (from the series Animal Pharm), 2014. Collage on paper


Kirsten Stolle, AP 6 (from the series Animal Pharm), 2014. Collage on paper

It seems that you research the issues your work exposes quite thoroughly so i was wondering if you could share some of that research and help us make better-informed food and health choices. Could you recommend books, videos or any online material we could have a look at if we want to know more about the pharming business?

For overall contextualization of the historical impacts of pesticides/herbicides I’d recommend the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. A terrific documentary from 2008 titled The World According to Monsanto is very compelling and maddening. In Defense of Food by journalist and activist Michael Pollan. For in-depth reading, the monthly peer-reviewed science journals Nature and Nature Biotechnology offer research backed articles. Organization such as the Environmental Working Group, Union of Concerned Scientists, Organic Consumer Association, Center for Food Safety are terrific watchdog and advocacy organizations.

Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto, 2008

How didactic and self-explanatory do you think your final pieces need to be? Do you feel that the message has to be crystal clear or do you prefer to leave space for the viewer to reflect and speculate?

My intention is to develop work that engages the viewer visually and intellectually without being overly didactic. The themes I examine in my work are contemporary concerns and most people will find some connection to the issues. Although my projects have a particular critique in mind, giving the viewer space for an ambiguous reading or even an opposing view can create interesting conversations.


Kirsten Stolle, 52 New Chemicals (from the series Monsanto Intervention), 2013


Kirsten Stolle, Better Business (from the series Monsanto Intervention), 2013

Some of the works from your series Monsanto Intervention will be part of the exhibition Evidentiary Realism which opens on 28 February in New York City. The series documents and reframes magazine adverts that Monsanto published in the 1940s-1960s to market their toxic chemicals for use in war, agriculture, and home. The name Monsanto equals “Big Satan” in Europe and I know of many American initiatives that attempt to counter its influence but i don’t know how widespread the anti-Monsanto feeling really is in the U.S. But how much awareness of the evils of Monsanto is there in the U.S.?

Monsanto uses sophisticated propaganda to position itself as a sustainable agriculture company, greenwashing its 100 + year history as a chemical company. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns to defeat anti-GMO legislations and create highly produced radio and TV commercials targeting consumers with a “Monsanto feeds the world” message.

When it comes to food safety, some of the US population believes the government acts as a watchdog over chemical companies like Monsanto, and works to protect us from unhealthy and dangerous substances. But with the continued revolving door between chemical company CEOs and government officials, the line is profoundly blurred between the regulator and the regulated. Additionally, increased food borne illnesses, monthly food recalls and environmental issues associated with herbicides/pesticides, have lead to a growing skepticism of our government interests.

Due to the efforts of advocacy groups and some legislators, there has been increased awareness of GMOs over the past several years. It has taken rigorous work to educate the public on exactly what genetic engineering of plants and animals means, and subsequently how GE impacts our national and global food system. The agrichemical corporations have a huge lobbying presence in Washington DC and spend millions on disinformation and greenwashing. In the US Monsanto is most closely associated with GMOs and there have been nationwide “March Against Monsanto” rallies and protests. In context with our industrialized food system, the proliferation of GMOs has raised additional concerns about corporate profit over human, animal and environmental health.

In Europe we feel we are protected from GMOs food and crops. Do you feel that we are naive? Have you during your research process encountered signs that Monsanto influence and products are present in some form or other in Europe?

I am very interested in how other countries treat/accept/deny GMO products or the growing of GMO plants. I am not familiar enough with how Agribusiness pushes to get their products into the EU market, although I understand there has been strong resistance from citizens and governments within individual EU nations. My sense is that the chemical companies have mainly focused their attention elsewhere, primarily on the US and developing nations where regulatory barriers and resistance is lower. In the US we have no federal regulations on GMOs (GMO ingredients are prohibited in organic foods) and developing countries are fed the narrative that GMO seeds and accompanying herbicides will increase crop yields to impoverished nations.


Kirsten Stolle, This War is Different (from the series Monsanto Intervention), 2013. Collage on magazine advertisement


Kirsten Stolle, By The Ton, 2013. Collage on magazine advertisement

The issues your work engages with are so wide-ranging, so complex and overwhelming, it must be intimidating to try and address them. I’m also expecting that the new U.S. government will not rush to solve any of those problems. This is probably a question you’ve been asked countless times but what do you think is the role of art in trying to visualise, communicate, resist or otherwise help disentangle all this mess?

Artists, and by extension their work, are essential to the cultural system particularly during challenging political times. Artists who strive to make socially-conscious art are most successful when something new can be added to the existing narrative and the conversation moves forward to the point of encouraging critical thinking. Socio-political art, whether provocative or relatively quiet, is always grounded in direct critique. Because my work is underpinned by topics that have a political framework and hit upon relevant social issues, my work can be challenging and uncomfortable. My focus is to observe and creatively reflecting back what is often too scary or daunting to witness.

Looking at your portfolio, it seems that your earlier works didn’t reflect your sociopolitical concerns so explicitly. Why this shift in your practice?

Yes, my early work centered on creating abstractions based on natural and human forms, using printmaking and mixed-media as my primary media. I was politically active during that time, but my art practice and political life remained somewhat separate. It was not until I began to experience health issues with soy products and to research GMOs, that I began to shift into making work based on my health and political concerns. Since 2010, my art practice has deepened into a platform where I can research and develop work within a visual vocabulary.


Kirsten Stolle, Protecting Our Planet (from the series By The Ton),2016

Any other upcoming work, field of research and concerns, or events you are currently working on?

I am currently working on two projects:

By The Ton is an archival photo/silkscreen/collage series investigating the historical legacy of multinational chemical companies and their influence on the global food system. This series dissects the prevailing rhetoric and critiques the practice of corporate greenwashing.

Disarm is a collage and drawing project examining the visual and psychological impact of former US Nike missile sites. I began Disarm at the end of 2015 as a way to investigate military propaganda within a 21st century framework. Given the incoming US political administration and in context with our current state of expanded drone warfare, increased surveillance systems and the uncertain relationship with Russia, my Disarm artistic research is taking on greater and urgent importance.

Thanks Kirsten!

Kirsten Stolle’s solo exhibition Proceed at Your Own Risk is at NOME in Berlin until 8 April 2017
Stolle also participates to Evidentiary Realism, a group show that opens at the Fridman Gallery on 28 February in New York City and runs until 31 March, 2017.

Air Slaves. Could we one day ‘lend our lungs’ to filter polluted air?

“Prepare for a future in which the only way of making a living is to ‘lend your lung’ to filter heavily polluted air. Clean Air International Inc. is looking for suppliers for its first Organic Clean Air (TM) retail store.”


Air Slaves. Image courtesy of Let it Be! art agency

Air Project. Work-in-progress demo on 25 September 2012, Labor, Budapest

Visitors of the Air Slaves exhibition which opens next Monday in Berlin will be invited to cover their mouth with a mask and walk around the space freely.

Throughout their stay in the gallery, their expiration will slowly inflate and fill in the plastic container attached to the mask. As each visitor exits the space, their bag will be sealed, carefully labelled and stored inside the Organic Clean Air depository along with the exhalations of previous visitors.

Hanging side by side, these “second-lung air” containers will build up a “lung-print” of human presence in the space.

Air Slaves is a speculative art installation that uses air as a metaphor for access to natural resources and reflects on a future in which good quality air has become so rare and valuable, it has become a commodity, not a basic right and necessity. A suggestion that appears to be a reality in some of the most polluted cities in the world.

Family sell British fresh air to wealthy Chinese elite for £80 a jar


A Chinese woman wears a mask and filter as she walks to work during heavy pollution on December 9, 2015 in Beijing, China. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images, via Mashable

This project is thus not about the quality of air as such but about access to it. It points to a future in which natural resources are being commodified and privatized. Just like what happens in certain parts of the world where the answer to water scarcity or poor quality is market-driven. You bottle the water, rather than tackle the problem to its roots.


Air Slaves. Image courtesy of Let it Be! art agency

The members of Let it Be!, the art agency behind the work, found a moment to answer my questions while preparing for the opening of the Air Slaves show in Berlin:

Hi Attila, Melinda, Andrea and Zoltán! Air Project ‘reflects on a future in which fresh air has become extremely rare and valuable.’ I was wondering if you could be more specific and tell us about the kind of concrete future the project is referring to. Do you see signs of this rarefaction or maybe even privatisation of air in society?

Attila Bujdosó: For me, this project is not really about air. We use air as a metaphor to resources, be they natural and social, in general. Also, this project is as much about our present as it is about our future. But talking about the future seems much easier to me because it allows speculation and playfulness without the need to prove our every step scientifically.

Melinda Sipos: Sometimes you feel that the human effects on the natural environment are so extreme that you can imagine this as one final phase before it collapses. We also often spoke about drinking water which is already a product and is an expensive commodity in some areas. And even though light is not crucial to life to live or work in a bright space, especially in a megalopolis, is a sign of wealth.


Air Project. Work-in-progress demo on 25 September 2012, Labor, Budapest


Air Project. Work-in-progress demo on 25 September 2012, Labor, Budapest

You had a first experiment with the project in Budapest back in 2012. How did visitors react to the idea behind the work? Were there surprising ways in which they reacted to or engaged with the work?

Attila: One thing which we anticipated beforehand and turned out to work really well is that participants indeed developed a personal relation to the air they exhaled and we encapsulated. We also took portraits of them, proudly posing with their plastic bags.

This air, however, is not any different biologically from the air they exhale at any time of the day. What the installation showed so well that collecting it and putting it into a plastic bag made them feel a sense of ownership over the air they exhaled. Ownership, thus, is socially constructed, and surprisingly easily constructed.

Melinda: Moreover, we also got into the situation or illusion that people left something valuable behind, a part of them. Before the experiment we concentrated more on the visualisation side of it and when we were left there with all the bags we felt a little embarrassed I think.

And what about their personal experience of the whole process? To me, the plastic mask looks claustrophobic and borderline suicidal but maybe i’m a bit dramatic?

Melinda: No, it does for sure. The whole instrument looks scary and weird. But surprisingly, people’s experience was rather intimate and relaxing. Many of them told us they felt encouraged to slow down by wearing the mask and be conscious about their breath. Breathing is something we don’t pay attention to it usually but the fact that the air was collected plus seeing the plastic bag growing gave it so much attention.


Air Project. Work-in-progress demo on 25 September 2012, Labor, Budapest


Air Project. Work-in-progress demo on 25 September 2012, Labor, Budapest

Could you tell us about the ‘data embodiment’ dimension of the work? We don’t normally associate data with exhaled air so why was it important to you to put a physiological function into a data perspective?

Zoltán Csík-Kovács: That was the first idea where the project originated from. It was on a data embodiment workshop organized by Baltan Laboratories and Kitchen Budapest in 2011. We got inspired by the idea of somehow making the volume and weight of exhaled air from all the people in the room visible and tangible. So we started to think about collecting the exhaled air into plastic bags and the possible ways this could be managed in a framework of a participatory exhibition. A lot of aspects, layers and unique expressions come into view while drafting afterwards like “air as a metaphor of sharing”, or “second-lung air”, or “lungprint”, and of course the question “where is the last breath of Elvis”.

Melinda: To me the fascinating thing about data visualisation in general is that you start seeing and understanding things which were invisible beforehand. Doing that in three dimension makes it even more compelling (this is why we initiated the whole Beyond Data project Zoltan mentioned). And with the air (exhale) it just seemed so impossible and so much on the border of something that can or cannot be shown that we really felt the urge to work with.

What are the little texts at the bottom of the plastic tubes we see in the video?

Zoltán: We asked the participants to write down their own thoughts on a paper that would go along with their packed exhaled air. We sealed the handwritings into the plastic bags so other visitors could read them. What I like the most is the intimacy it creates. While reading their thoughts you can’t help personalizing these empty-like plastic bags and feeling a kind of vacuum that the person left for you. In this way the installation space also gave room for a constant and silent conversation where thoughts followed thoughts within a loosely articulated theme.

Attila: But for the upcoming show in Berlin this will change.

So the project in Berlin will be different from what you presented in Budapest? The text on the facebook page is a bit different, it sounds a bit more radical “Prepare for a future in which the only way of making a living is to ‘lend your lung’ to filter heavily polluted air. Clean Air International Inc. (CAI) is looking for suppliers for its first Organic Clean Air (TM) retail store.”

Zoltán: Yes, it will be different. We will experiment with putting the visitors into and reflecting to well recognized situations in today’s consumer world, like being in a retail shop or being a donor of some medical institute. So consuming goods and being the goods. This time we play a role of a huge company, Clean Air International, that is the only choice for most of the people in a dystopian world to make a living. The whole situation is imaginary but it more accurately reflects upon critical debates of today or approaching in the near future like ecological crisis, artificial intelligence taking jobs from people, wealth inequality, unconditional basic income, etc.

Attila: Yes, the installation will be more radical in Berlin. The world has become more radical, especially since last year, so we reflect on that. It addresses issues on how we will deal with mass-unemployment, ecological change or economic and political shifts.

I’m also quite curious about Let it Be! art agency. What is it exactly? Are you a group of artists? a kind of go between agency that facilitates relationships between artists and tech companies or other private or public entities?

Andrea Kovács: Budapest based Let it Be! art agency is developing new interdisciplinary forms of co-operation between different areas of art and creative industries by exploring possibilities in innovative collaborations. The agency is engaged in managing and initiating cross media and urban city projects which focus on new synergies of art and technology. Our projects are inviting for explorative city journeys, virtual adventures in the augmented reality and offer unique interactive installations and performances.

Air Slaves Berlin is a work-in-progress presentation. It is included in the official program of transmediale and CTM Vorspiel 2017 as part of Collegium Hungaricum Berlin’s Human Signals event series curated by Andrea Kovács, the founder of Let it Be! The thematic programs are focusing on the interactions between human body and different kind of physical and digital surroundings. Human Signals provides interactive installations, biofeedback performances and creative coding workshops such as a pop up exhibition. The invited Hungarian artists are working on methods of data visualisation in different creative fields by using sounds, movements, breathes, heartbeats, memories, touches and feelings. They experiment with possibilities of making visible biological processes and activating our perception and instinct in unique ways.

Thanks Attila, Melinda, Andrea and Zoltán!

The Air Slaves show is open on 6 to 8 Februrary at Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin.

You can register to participate.

Related story: Who owns the air?

Talking broiler chicken, germ maps and maggots with Andreas Greiner

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Andreas Greiner, Monument for the 308 (detail), 2016. Exhibition view of Andreas Greiner. Agentur des Exponenten. GASAG Kunstpreis 2016, Berlinische Galerie, 2016. Photo: Harry Schnitger

Andreas Greiner has built a monument to the humble broiler. A 7 meter high 3D printed version of a real chicken that had lived and died in a battery farm in Brandenburg, Germany. The artist then installed the giant sculpture inside the main hall of the Berlinische Galerie. I haven’t seen it yet but it looks poignant. It has the imposing presence of a dinosaur skeleton, the photogenic appeal of an instagram star but the mistrustful contours of a chicken that has never seen trees, grass or the light of a sunny day.

Not that i’ve ever seen any broiler chicken alive. I’m just assuming, extrapolating and letting my mind wander. Because Greiner’s work excels at triggering your imagination: he quietly lays in front of your eyes some visually stunning concepts and ideas, he never suffocates them with explanations but lets you ponder upon them and draw your own conclusions about what they say about our society, economy and culture.

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Andreas Greiner, Monument for the 308, 2016. Exhibition view of Andreas Greiner GASAG Kunstpreis 2016, Berlinische Galerie, 2016, Photo. Theo Bitzer

Monument for 308 shows that Greiner is comfortable working on the macro scale but he is also quietly building an impressive career engaging with the small (maggots, flies, algae, tiny crustaceans), and the very very small (microbes of all sorts.) Greiner works with living organisms (including himself when he decided to spend a week inside a gallery in the sole company of a few insects and plants), enrolling them as both subjects of careful reflection and as collaborators. His previous projects involved buying 40 litres of maggots and bringing them to the exhibition space until they turn into flies, composing music based on
 the luminous skin of a squid, convincing the Director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin to consider a fly as a living artwork and provide for its well-being, photographing portraits of algae, carefully orchestrating explosions around Berlin, etc.

The young artist recently received the GASAG Art Prize, a recognition awarded to Berlin-based artists whose work dialogues with technology and science. I caught up with him to discuss chicken, bacterial maps and the perils of working with maggots:

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Heinrich, Totus Corpus – full Body Portrait of a broiler, 2015, Photo: Theo Bitzer & Andreas Greiner

Hi Andreas! I find your chicken projects very moving. But then i’ve always had a soft spot for animals. Which kind of response and reflection do you hope to elicit with works like Monument for the 308 and Heinrich (poor poor little battery chickens)?

I’m not necessarily looking to provoke pity for Heinrich, the broiler chicken. How a person reacts to my works is of course not in my control, however I would like the viewer to reflect upon the issue. We create these animals for the sole purpose of our eating habits, this is a species, which would not exist like this were it not for humans intervention into their breeding behaviour and anatomy. Heinrich is a metaphor, he represents our contemporary age in which humans are the driving creative and destructive force on planet earth. If dinosaurs are a relic from the Mesozoic Era, broiler chicken would be a “monument” of now.

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Andreas Greiner, fattened chicken Éléonore before CT scan in Berlin, 2015

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Heinrich at the petting zoo in Berlin Tempelhof, 2015

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Andreas Greiner, Ulrike (Euastrum oblongum) Electron scanning micrograph 2016 measurement: Andreas Greiner and Martina Heider, Bayerisches Polymerinstitut, University Bayreuth

After Heinrich died, his body underwent an autopsy. What did you learn from it?

Heinrich died a few months after I handed him over to a petting zoo. The autopsy found that he most likely died from a heart attack, probably because his body was just too heavy.

I found the description of the works on your website to be fairly neutral and factual but i couldn’t help wonder whether these works were trying to make a point about animal welfare, man-made forms of nature, the food industry or maybe even veganism?

They are pointing to all of those and more. Certainly they also reflect my personal view. There is a general disregard for certain animals, which we view as an objective mass – matter to be exploited to fit our needs. My works show this, but I chose to only have short, factual descriptions like for example the documentations on my website. The reception should stay open for individual interpretation. By dealing with issues such as factory farming, genetic manipulation or the identity of animals, of course, the viewer makes their own conclusions in the end.

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

I was feeling less sorry for the maggots then flies in the work Every Fly is a Piece of Art. I’m wondering how the whole adventure unfolded though. Did you really manage to buy all available fly maggots in Berlin and did you manage to control the flies and channel them through the exit as you had hoped? It sounds to me like a wild project where so many elements can take a direction that wasn’t expected…

Yes, it was slightly chaotic. I conceived this work for the final exhibition of my masters at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Back in 2012 with a students budget it was impossible to buy all the flies in Berlin. I visited every fisherman shop that sells maggots though and bought a huge amount of their maggots in stock. Most of the salesmen were afraid to loose their clients if they sold all of their maggots to me in order to really buy all oft them I would have had to bribe the salesmen.

In the exhibition they started hatching and flying about. All the painting students of the other studios were mad at me because the flies landed on their freshly painted surfaces. They reacted by constructing fly traps, which turned my intentions around completely. I actually had to end the project earlier than the official end of the master class exhibition – at least half of the flies (about 100 000) hatched outside in nature. After this experience, I decided to only work with a few flies or one fly at a time because this is more foreseeable.

Your practice seems to be an interesting mix of collaboration with scientists and other experts along with processes that make control over the final artworks a bit difficult.  How important is it for you to be in control (or rather maybe not be in control) of the art piece you are developing?

I am interested in the processual aspects of sculpture and have integrated living organisms into many of my works. I call this co-authorship, as they co-create and transform the art work by the process of living. Uncontrollable biological processes are an integral part of the outcome of an art work.

By working with experts and scientists I am able to broaden and deepen my work by researching very specific topics and techniques. I am interested in an exchange between artistic and scientific knowledge.

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Andreas Greiner, Spring Forward Fall Back, Lichthaus, Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2014. Photo: Vlado Velkov

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Andreas Greiner, Spring Forward Fall Back, Lichthaus, Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2014. Photo: Vlado Velkov

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Andreas Greiner, Spring Forward Fall Back, Lichthaus, Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2014. Photo: Vlado Velkov

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Andreas Greiner, Spring Forward Fall Back, Lichthaus, Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2014. Photo: Vlado Velkov

I’m very curious about Spring Forward Fall Back and what you experienced during this cohabitation with an ecosystem you had created for you and for nature. What did you learn and observe during that week? How did the insects, plants and other living entities inhabit and modify the space over time?

I was invited by the Kunstverein Arnsberg for a show at the Lichthaus and decided to live in there for a week. It was an interesting experience. First of all I learnt, that spring in Arnsberg (in the Sauerland, Western Germany) starts later then in the rest of Germany. . In the beginning there were few insects, for example a single bumblebee got lost, it moved very slowly because of the cold. I brought a female moth with me from Berlin and later she actually attracted a local male moth. Insect match-making. By the end of the exhibit an ant colony had settled and the population of my animal co-inhabitants and plants had multiplied 5 times.

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Andreas Greiner &, Julian Charrière, Dominions, 2011, collecting microbes at Schwarze Pumpe, Brandenburg

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Andreas Greiner &, Julian Charrière, Dominions, 2011, example of an expressed growth pattern by microbes

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Andreas Greiner &, Julian Charrière, Dominions, 2011, collecting microbes at Elsdorf, Brandenburg, Nordrhein-Westfalen

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Andreas Greiner &, Julian Charrière, Dominions, 2011, exhibition view

In Dominions you created bacterial maps of Germany and Switzerland. From the photos and videos on the project page, it seems that you collected the microbes from very specific and interesting looking locations. Could you tell us about these places and what guided your selection of them as well as of the selection of the microbes?
And what links the humble microbes with the title of the work, Dominions?

The project was a collaboration with Julian Charrière when we were still students at Olafur Eliasson‘s Institute for Spatial Experiments. We selected places in Germany and Switzerland. Some were biographically relevant (our birthplaces in Germany and Switzerland) and others were geographically important places, such as the highest mountain in Germany, the three border triangle between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, the eastern most point of Germany, etc. We brought sterile boxes filled with a plane layer of white culture medium for microgerms (comparable to an unexposed film or white canvas) and exposed them to the surroundings for 30min each. The collected bacteria and spores expressed different patterns and colours back in Berlin under vitrine glass.

By selecting germs from all these chosen places we reconstructed a map of Germany and Switzerland, which is not based on socio-political conventions, but defined by the microorganisms populating these areas. It’s a reference to landscape painting or photography – a snapshot of the non-perceiveable micro-landscape in the air. We humans assume to have over our landscapes with roads, cities and railways criss-crossing though the country. But it’s microorganisms, like algae and bacteria, which cover the earth and have dominion over it.

Speaking of humble lives, what is it that attracts you to the underdogs like microbes, algae, maggots, broiler chickens, etc?

One of the challenges of art is to visualize things: show things from a different perspective, or things that are generally not seen. There is a staggering mass of life that we humans never visually appreciate: industrial broiler chicken, deep-sea squids, algae which are too small to be visible, or insects, because we find them repulsive. I consider the way we interact with our surroundings very telling of our species and our times.

From Strings to Dinosaurs shown at the exhibition cycle “MULTITUDES”, curated by Anna Henckel and Nadim Samman, at Import Projects and Cycle Music and Art Festival, 2015

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EExhibition view of “Andreas Greiner. Agentur des Exponenten. GASAG Kunstpreis 2016”, Berlinische Galerie, 2016. Photo: Harry Schnitger

Any upcoming project, field of research or event you could share with us?

This month, I have two exhibitions in Berlin: Golden Gate together with Armin Keplinger at Kwadrat and DAS NUMEN MEATUS at Dittrich and Schlechtriem. The finissage of my exhibition in the Berlinische Gallerie is on the 6th of February, where Tyler Friedman and I will show the work From Strings to Dinosaurs. The algae in the reactor will be placed on top of the self-playing piano and illuminate during the musical composition.

Künstler Andreas Greiner in seinem Atelier in der Malzfabrik, Berlin Tempelhof Foto: Mike Wolff
Artist Andreas Greiner in his Berlin workshop. Photo: Mike Wolff in Der Tagesspiegel

Thanks Andreas!