Category Archives: art in Berlin

Oscillations. Or the grace of unpredictability

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Joris Strijbos, Axon, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Joris Strijbos‘s kinetic light sculptures are elegant, ingenious and almost minimalist. Under the deceivingly simple appearance of the works, lay systems that delve into the laws of cybernetics, play with the architecture of the space, mimic biological systems and surprise their creator with their intrinsic unpredictability.

The artist is currently showing two of his latest works in a solo show at the NOME gallery in Berlin. The first of them, Homeostase, is made of group of luminous elements that communicate with each other and devise a generative choreography based on principles found in cellular automaton and swarm intelligence. The second installation, called Axon, consists of a trio of rotating arms that explore the idea of machine synesthesia and generate their own audiovisual composition.

The two installations are composed of a series of identical elements, connected in a network and exchanging information between one another through electric signals. The collective behavior of the actuators and sensors create unpredictable patterns, as though a system of living organisms with their own variable program. A moving scene emerges, where the borders between a ‘natural’ order of things and the mechanical constructions of humans are tested.

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Joris Strijbos, Homeostase, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

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Opening | Oscillations by Joris Strijbos. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Strijbos is also part of Macular collective, a group of artists interested in art, science, technology, and perception (do have a look at their website when you have a moment, there’s tons of talent in there.) I caught up with the artist right before its solo show opened in Berlin:

Hi Joris! Some of your work is inspired by early cybernetics. Why do you think it is important and relevant today to pay closer attention to early cybernetics? What can the cybernetics approach teach us about machines, living systems, intelligence, etc?

For me early cybernetics is mostly an inspiration. I like the idea that complexity can emerge from simple rule-sets and feedback loops. The fluctuating outcome of these kind of systems make me think of social interaction processes within groups of living organisms.

The works you are showing at NOME start from a set of parameters that you established and then they take a life of their own. Has this element of unpredictability ever surprised you? Do the installations sometimes behave in ways you wouldn’t have expected for example?

They definitely behave in ways that I could not have predicted, especially in the beginning of programming the installations. I start with some very simple feedback loops and see what kind of behaviour the installation performs. From there on the programming becomes more of an interaction between me and the machine. I try to provoke a certain interesting and emergent behaviour in which there is a balance between unpredictable complexity and the opportunity for the spectator to “read” the rules of the system.

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Joris Strijbos, Homeostase, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

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Joris Strijbos, Homeostase, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Do you think that it is important for the visitors of the exhibition to understand the functioning of the works in order to enjoy them?

I don’t think it is necessary to have a deeper understanding of the background of these works. They are primarily build as multi sensorial installations that can be experienced in it’s abstract form. They are kinetic light works that perform a choreography which can be seen as some sort of visual music. This can be experienced without knowledge of the idea to work with artificial living systems. What I like is that by observing the works someone can detect the rules behind the actions that take place in the installation.

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Joris Strijbos, Homeostase

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Joris Strijbos, Homeostase

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Joris Strijbos, Homeostase, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

I was looking at the spectacular images of Hemeostase on your website and it seems that each time you exhibited the work, it inhabited the space very differently. How are you planning to install Homeostase at NOME? How will it adapt to the gallery?

Indeed the work was first realised as a modular system that could adapt to every space. It was mainly installed as a horizontal field, either above or in front of the viewer. For NOME I made a new version of the work that gives the spectator more of a topview. The units are placed in a vertical grid which gives a good view of the interactions between the different rotating arms in the system.

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Joris Strijbos, Axon, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

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Joris Strijbos, Axon, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

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Joris Strijbos, Axon, 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Axon seems to be a new work. Could you take a moment to tell us how it works and what you wanted to achieve/show with it?

Axon came forth out of the idea of machine synaestetics. I was reading in John Johnston‘s book, The Allure of Machinic Life where he writes about new forms of nascent life that emerge trough technical interactions within human-constructed environments. At the same time I was doing some research on neural networks and synesthesia. This made me think of how synesthesia could work inside a machine. And so the base for the work comes from the idea to cross sensors and actuators in a robotic community. Technically the work consists of three identical rotating arms, which have a speaker, a sensor and a light attached to it. In the work motion, sound and light are connected in a very direct way and form components for a generative audiovisual composition.

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Opening | Oscillations by Joris Strijbos. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

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Opening | Oscillations by Joris Strijbos. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Both Axon and Homeostase “comprise a robotic community of identical elements, connected in a network and exchanging information between one another through electric signals.” Does the presence of visitor influence in anyway the installations? Or is it some kind of an internal dialogue between the elements?

In both the works there is communication trough light. This means that the units in the works can detect the amount of lumen around them. In theory a visitor could influence the system, but my aim is more on an interaction between the different units in the system instead of one with the audience.

Any upcoming projects, exhibition or research you could share with us?

At the moment I am busy with the Macular collective to set up a lab concentrating on a combination of land art and new media art. It is mainly focused on using green energy sources for kinetic light and sound installations. Furthermore I am working with artist Nicky Assmann on a project focusing on the moiré effect. We are making kinetic sculptures that play with the visual perception of complex grids. There are some exhibitions planned with new works from the project towards the end of the summer.

Thanks Joris!

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Opening | Oscillations by Joris Strijbos. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME Gallery

Oscillations by Joris Strijbos opens at NOME Project gallery in Berlin until 30 July 2016.

Biometric Capitalism

Opportunity International Bank of Malawi brought modern banking services to poor clients traditionally shut out of banking in Malawi. Such innovations include ATMs fingerprint-based biometric technology. In some large Malawi businesses, production workers are paid by funds directly deposited into worker's high-tech OIBM Smart Cards..
ATMs fingerprint-based biometric technology in Malawi. Photo via African Business

Back in April, i was in Berlin for the Anthropocene Curriculum and very much looking forward to Truth Measures, an evening of talks and performances at Haus der Kulturen der Welt which examined the techniques and technologies for gathering data, truth, evidence and how they produce what is true and what isn’t. Unfortunately, right before that i had attended a fantastically informative workshop that involved walking for hours under the pouring rain and i had to chose between either going back to the studio i was renting and getting dry or getting the flu or whatever people get sick of when their brand new creepers make squishy squishy sounds with their every step. I thus missed the evening and the morning after everyone was telling me about this talk i would have loved.

It was called Biometric Capitalism: Infrastructures of Identification and Credit Risk on the African Continent in the 21st Century. I ended up meeting its author, Keith Breckenridge, a couple of days later. We were supposed to have a conversation but i ended up pestering him with questions about his work. Breckenridge is a historian, a Professor and Deputy Director at WITS Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg. My invasive cross-examination of him was one of the most exciting moments of my week in Berlin. HKW has recently uploaded on youtube the video of the presentation i had missed. Whoopee! Whoopee!


Biometric Capitalism: Infrastructures of Identification and Credit Risk on the African Continent in the 21st Century. Presentation by Keith Breckenridge

In this short presentation, Breckenridge explores what biometrics means in African countries, how it is used and by who, how it is affecting the poorest people in the world, how it fails, etc. And most importantly why we should be concerned about it.

Here’s the abstract:

A new and distinctive variety of capitalism is currently taking form on the African continent. States are being remade under the pressures of rapid demographic growth, intractable conflicts over boundaries, domestic and international security demands, and the offerings of multi-lateral donors and international data-processing corporations. Much of this turns to enhanced forms of state surveillance that is common to societies across the globe, but the economic and institutional forms on the African continent are unusual. Automated biometric identification systems present former colonial states with apparently simple and cost-effective alternatives to the difficult and expensive projects of civil registration. In many African countries, commercial banks are offering to bear the costs of building centralized biometric population registers, explicitly having in mind the development of a national identification database and commercial credit risk scoring apparatus, a combination that aims to transform all citizens into appropriate subjects for automated debt appraisal.

And here’s a few notes i wrote down while watching this video. I’m only adding them here in case anyone in this audience absolutely hates watching video….

For most of the last century, vastly more people in Africa have been involved in agriculture than in trade. The form of capitalism and the institutions that capitalism depended upon have been dependent on mining and on mineral extractions and in particular in the last 10 years on oil. That’s what dominated investments, state revenues, company revenues, individuals incomes especially property forms, etc.

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George Osodi, from the series Oil Rich Niger Delta, 2003-2007

It is well established now that there are many different kinds of capitalism. So what is biometric capitalism?

Biometric Capitalism is a system of economy activity organised around the centralised unity database of biometrically ordered populations registration where the identification is done on the basis of people’s fingerprints or some other iris that can allow for unique identification (or close to unique identification.) It is justified morally and politically by the politics and the technologies of cash transfers.

In South Africa, 40% of the population receives a monthly cash transfer payment from the state through a biometric system. There are many attempts of similar basic income grants on the African continent for people who are locked out of formal work. Banks are often the ones who are funding the development of these population registers and they are developing shared infrastructures for credit surveillance that are derived from the original FICO scores.

The FICO algorithm has spread very widely around the world and it has been adopted very enthusiastically in the last 5 years. Non-governments and governments are pushing the development of tracking systems around cash transfer schemes and student loans. Last year, the big complaint of students in South Africa was that the debt that they have to cover their subsistence while studying at university is handed over to the banks. If they don’t service the loans they are blackmarked very quickly. That is the first thing an employer will query when a graduate goes and applies for work. If you haven’t been servicing your debts, you don’t get shortlisted for an interview. You thus lose your ability to pay back the loan. Those loan schemes exist in almost all countries on the continent. These systems are heavily influenced by infrastructures of biometrics, government and banking that were first developed in South Africa over the course of the last century. It’s important to understand that biometric capitalism confronts two fundamental problems about the nature of the state and the economy on the African continent:

The first problem is that unlike the conventional barbarian and Foucauldian understanding of power knowledge, states on the African continent have limited knowledge about their population. Most births and most deaths are still not recorded. Even South Africa has only started recording the majority of births in 2002.

Unlike India, African colonial states did not count their population. They had no interest really in anyone, except the white people who lived in the cities.

Hundred years ago already, the colonial officials said “Don’t listen to Africans, they lie about who they are. The only way you can know for sure is if you record their fingerprints.” And much the same juxtaposition exists today.

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Projections of human populations to 2100, per continent

The second problem is demography. Most African states have experienced dramatic increases in population over the last generation, going from comparatively low densities to some the highest ever recorded. The current estimate is that in 20150 it will be between 2 and 2.5 billion and that by the end of the century there will be between 4 and 6 billion people on the continent.

Most states are scrambling to build bureaucratic mechanisms to get a grip on it. In each case we can see a convergence towards an administrative architecture that emerged first in South Africa. It’s radically centralised biometric identity registration, with privatised biometric cash transfers, universal credit histories, credit histories that come to serve as instruments of moralisation. So if nothing else really works, we can at least identify what kind of person you are by looking at your credit history.

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I could have illustrated the ID project in India with a more relevant image but i just love that this dog in Madhya Pradesh got an Aadhaar card for itself

There are other examples throughout the world, the most important is UID project in India.
Two things stand out:
1. It’s not a card, it’s a number. The government only gives you a number. It’s intangible. People have demanded a card, some have laminated the paper receipts.
2. A billion people have been registered in the last 5 years which makes it by far the most successful registration project ever attempted.

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Screenshot from Breckenridge presentation

Pictures of how this works in South Africa:

The first large-scale application of fingerprint-based digital biometrics was in the delivery of pension benefits in the former KwaZulu homeland in the late 1980s. Incidentally, this was the first trial of sound recognition and officials say they couldn’t get the people to be calm enough about it. They were initially reluctant to use fingerprint, thinking that people would associate it with the Apartheid state. But in the end they used fingerprint simply because that was a technique that everybody understood, the subjects and the officials.

The kits used in the 1990s were the same standardised equipment you can find today. It’s essentially ATM machines that are hooked up to a little biometric device.

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Screenshot from Breckenridge presentation

Net1 UEPS, ‘the anti-bank’, is a private company that is now the direct agent of the South African model of biometric government. It has contracts for government grants and pensions in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ghana, etc. This company is explicitly targeting offline, illiterate bank customers, what are called ‘unbanked populations’. The company has been subject to many legal disputes, but there’s no mistaking its momentum in Southern Africa and around the world. There are 22 million people inside the Net1 database itself. This is a separate system, it’s not the same one used by the government. Their business model involves providing a banking infrastructure so they are lending to the people who are paid grants by the government and of course they have access to all the income these people earn so they can lend to them without any risk at all. Last week, the World Bank bought 10% of the company for a hundred million dollars.

These biometric systems in South Africa are connected very closely to credit surveillance which didn’t really exist in the country in 1990. Between 1990 and 2016, we’ve seen the extension of the American system of automated information about your credit: not only what you borrow but also what you pay off on your utility bills as a means of gathering information about your suitability as a bank customer. The credit reference bureau collects your name, your identity number, your address, who your employer is, your debts and payments on your telephone account, your cable tv, cell phone contract, your utility bills, your credit cards and mortgages. This is a model used everywhere now. The distinction is that in South Africa, the state uses it as a moralising instrument. If i am an employee of a local municipality, i will decide whether you are a virtuous tenant by looking at your credit history. There are something like 20 million individual profiles in the system in South Africa and 50% of them are what we would call blacklisted customers. They can’t get access to credit, they can’t typically get access to any of the things that they are asking for, whether it’s access to a rent or the opportunity for employment.

Over the last 5 years, this system has started to move rapidly around the continent.

The fantasy of capturing the unbanked lays behind the first system of biometric cash or biometric money ever implemented on the planet. In 2007, Net1 was contracted by the central bank of Ghana for a national banking switch (the E-Zwich) that requires all bank transactions to be biometrically authenticated (in theory because it didn’t work like that in practice.) So you put your fingerprint on the reader, somebody else has to do the same in order to move money from one account to another. The scheme has been a dismal failure: the machines don’t work very well, they don’t access the cellular network and generally people have been very reluctant to use it. Ghanians haven’t taken very kindly to the idea that they should be submitted to a different technology to the one that they would use when they are in London. So there has been resistance from the rich and as for the poor, they don’t have any money.

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Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan looks at the replica of his electronic identity card during the launching of the cards in Abuja

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MasterCard-branded National Identity Smart Cards with electronic payment capability

The most outrageous of these schemes was the announcement in 2013 that MasterCard would be issuing the Federal Republic of Nigeria identity card. It sets in place an astonishing precedent and there is very little legal apparatus to deal with it.

Of course many of these things don’t work as flawlessly as scheduled.

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A group of youths display their disfigured fingerprints at Maili Saba quarry in Bahati, Nakuru. More than 40 youths working at the quarry have no Identification Cards. Photo: Kipsang Joseph/Standard

People working manually, like bricklayers, often present damaged fingerprints and they are never going to be biometrically captured. There isn’t currently a way to deal with this

Then there’s the problem of efficiency: after a decade of issuing identity cards, Nigeria have only issued them to 10 million people. There are 180 million Nigerians…

The model, however, remains in place. There’s no sign in other word of official hesitation or of remorse.

Breckenridge then read this article about the biometric registration of Kenyans. The process will involve scanning of existing identification documents, facial scans and taking of finger prints. Children under 12 years will have their irises scanned. The register will also capture land details, assets and registered companies, with a view of enlisting those within the tax bracket who are not paying duty.

So what is Biometric Capitalism and where is it happening?

Banks and states are now in an intimate embrace, funding each others’ work. Global corporations, donors, kit manufacturers all act together in a network.

Laura Mann has recently finished her PhD on this topic, focusing on Kenya. She describes an industrial policy that favours the creation, accumulation and sharing of data (currently without meaningful privacy limits); hinged on the creation of biometric national population registers that are hooked into the credit history system.

This apparatus is antagonistic to the strategies of subsistence and accumulation that have dominated on the continent to this date: resource extraction.

There are some sinister and in fact distressing new forms of coercively imposed civic virtue that will require people to act as individualised entities and be preoccupied with their algorithmically generated reputation.

Personal debts, debt service and the risks around the servicing of those debts are becoming the dominant forms of property and profit on the continent. In an economic landscape where mineral titles have long predominated. This is capitalism in a world with very weak states, where growth is demographic and where personal debt is the most valuable resource.

Videos from the same evening:
Truth Measures | Technosphere Truth?,
Truth Measures | The Common Sense,
Truth Measures | Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself.

Related stories: Confessions of a Data Broker and other tales of a quantified society, MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency, Obfuscation. A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, etc.

Tanks, drones, rockets and other sound machines. An interview with Nik Nowak

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Booster 2.13, 2013. Courtesy Hubertus von Hohenlohe

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Es Kommt Nicht Immer Eine Grille Geflogen, 2015. Installation view: Alexander Levy

Es Kommt Nicht Immer Eine Grille Geflogen, 2015

This week, i’m interviewing an artist, curator and musician who builds formidable and robust military tanks, drones, rockets and other weapon-looking instruments. Nik Nowak‘s riotous and dangerous toys for big boys investigate how military technologies can invade our everyday life. They pump out powerful sound, spy on your private conversations, turn electromagnetic waves from cell phones and tablets into audible phenomena, and explore how sound can take control over crowds and public space.

One of Nowak’s recent mobile sound sculptures, Echo, uses small tank drones that detect human presence and roll toward it. One of the drones snoops on visitors’ conversations and uses a parametric speaker to send the words directly back to them. Meanwhile, the second vehicle further invades people’s privacy by amplifying these sounds through large speakers.

Nik Nowak is one of the artists represented by SHAPE, a platform for innovative music and audiovisual art from Europe. I got in touch with Nik while he was working on a series of events and on a new album with his band SCHOCKGLATZE. Despite his busy schedule, the artist still found a moment to answer my questions:

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Portrait of Nik Nowak. Photo: Benjamin Kahlmeyer

Hi Nik! By their aspect and the technologies involved (drones or tanks for example), some of your work evoke military weapons. And because of that i think they might also evoke experiments in sonic warfare. So what is the place or influence of warfare in your work, if there’s any?

I grew up in the 80s in Mainz, a town in west Germany in the Rhein-Main region which was heavily occupied by American military. In Mainz for example was the largest American tank factory based outside of the USA. It was the end/post cold war time and the beginning of the first Iraq war. Nuclear weapons were based between Mainz and Frankfurt and tanks were shipped from Mainz to the desert of Saudi Arabia and brought back there after their missions leaving the desert sand on the streets in front of our schools and kindergartens.

At the time, the generation of my parents was actively involved in peace and anti nuclear energy movements. It felt like a climate of development into a more ecological and peaceful future although the industry showed a different face. We see the results today. War zones spread over the planet and we face the climate change. The impression of the controversy of the civil ideological movements and the reality of politics and industry left a mark that can be found all over my work. With the American occupation, Hip Hop music brought by the GIs and American radio stations had a big influence on me as a child and youth. Further on music became a medium which allowed me more freedom and space for considering my identity than anything else

But your piece do not just look martial or threatening, there’s also something very playful about them. They often look like big toys for boys and also i read that club culture was a big influence on your work. So how important is this playful element, this desire to maybe entertain with your seducing machines?

My sound system machines today fulfill a function which only club culture could give me in my youth and early adult years. I could say i grew up between speaker stacks. The club functioned as a black box, a temporary autonomous zone in which it was possible to disappear and calibrate oneself without the normative rules of society and state. Even though the objects i build are art pieces they also have the potential and the functionality of a sound system. They are not just exhibition pieces. I use them in the Studio and on the street to make music and to create interactions with the environment. It’s not entertainment though, it’s a practice i love and need and which can be clashing or be shared with others.

You seem to experiment a lot with frequencies and volumes. Is it only for the ears or do you want to stimulate the body and other senses of the audience in other ways?

Sound can be used in many ways to create an musical experience. My understanding of Music goes further than melody and rhythm. Its loudness, psychoacoustics, noise, silence and time.

I read online that the starting point of your work with sound was a gun shot near your right ear that prevents you from hearing high frequencies. Could you briefly explain that? You don’t hear high frequencies from one ear but the other hears them fine? And how does this trauma translate into your practice?

Yes, my right ear can’t hear above 7 or 8 Khz which is slightly above human speech. In daily life it’s hardly recognizable because the left ear takes over the work for the right ear in the missing frequencies. Although if the surrounding soundscape is too noisy this doesn’t work well any more and can become very tiring. Also when i close my left ear, everything sounds quite muddy on the right side and high tones, like the sound of crickets for example, are completely missing.

By recognizing that my hearing is not normal i started to become more interested in the limitation of the human perception in general and focused on frequency spectrums that are not in the focus of our perception and more a subtle side effect although with a massive influence on our psychology and body functions.

When i started to produce electronic music i recognized that i’m very much focused on low frequency ranges and high tones. The middle range were usually voice and melody are set did t interest me to much.

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Echo. Installation view Berlinische Galerie

Berlinische Galerie: Nik Nowak, Echo. GASAG Art Prize 2014

Echo looks like a more political work. Because of the drones and also because of the way they occupy the space and seemed to intrude on the privacy of the gallery visitors. Could you comment on that? What were you trying to communicate with this work?

Echo is mainly about the change of privacy and publicity in the age of digital globalization. I was fascinated by the fact that through social networks and forums of all kind everybody can have world wide publicity any time anywhere. Before the internet that has been depending on mass media. On the other hand privacy is something that has never been more threatened than it is these days. The Echo installation played with issues of monitoring and self monitoring. One drone plays a directional echo back to the visitor the other amplifies the sounds of the visitors through a sound system in the exhibition hall. Both drones are autonomous systems and interact with the visitor.

Till and Nik Nowak, Souvenirs, 2007

Could you explain how the sculptural form of your works relate to the sound they produce? For example, do you start with an idea about the kind of sound experience you want to create and the sculpture emerges from that? Or is it the other way round?

Mostly it starts with an Idea, with a vision or a question wich leads to a concept for a self experiment. the Machines are mostly tools for a experimental setup wich is suppose to formulate something i can t describe in a another way. Everything happens very intuitively.

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Panzer, 2011

Nik Nowak vs. Ultramoodem live @ CTM 2012. Video: Schockglatze

How did you actually built Panzer? Because to me, it looks like there’s an old farm tractor hidden under that armor…

Yes, Panzer is a Japanese mini dumper which i’ve bought on eBay. I’ve cut everything off i didn’t needed and built the sound system onto the leftover of the original track vehicle. I did every thing by my self and needed 3 years to get it done. I like working on my own which makes everything slow. Therefore i can work out things perfectly how i mean them without too much explanation upfront.

You’ve been working as an artist for over 10 years if i understood correctly. So how has your practice evolved since you started?

It’s still the same and always different.

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Rakete, 2010


Rakete, 2010

An upcoming exhibition, research, project you could share with us?

After i realized the second Panzerparade in Berlin with Ikonika and Scratcha DVA last week as a march against weapon exportation into crises areas.

I’m back in the studio working on a new Sound Panzer Sound System. Beside that my band Schockglatze is releasing an EP titled Warlord with e-label Throughmyspeakers.

We present the project at Music Tech Fest live on the 27th at Funkhaus Ost.

Thanks Nik!

Pictoplasma focus: Jim Avignon

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Jim Avignon, Nachtwache

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Jim Avignon, Den Zähnen das Schicksai Zeigen, 2014

Jim Avignon is an illustrator, painter, performer and conceptual artist. His work is witty, pop, cheerful and at times also thoughtful and deep. He works fast, very fast and he has no time for the rules, rhythms and logic of a traditional art career. He delights in using cheap and found materials, laughs at the totally wrong information that circulates about him online and keeps his art affordable and intelligible to everyone.

When he is not painting murals in Latin America, creating coloring books for children living in refugee camps or stealing Berlin’s iconic and kitschy buddy bears, Avignon turns himself into “neoangin”, a performer of electronic music that doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously either.

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Plates, part of the Black Market Black Market at ReTramp Gallery

Jim Avignon, his magnificent plates, infinite humour and droll little characters are participating to the Pictoplasma festival this week. He also has a solo show titled Black Market at ReTramp Gallery (be quick because it’s open till Sunday only!)

The artist is as warm and amusing as his little creatures, i’m happy Pictoplasma gave me an excuse to get in touch with him a few weeks ago:

Hi Jim! I saw a video in which you explained that you created a second identity for yourself and called him ‘Neoangin.’ Which relationship do you have with this musical alter-ego? How different is he from yourself? And have you started actually becoming Neoangin after so many years living with him?

He is some kind of weirdo jump and run cartoon character version of me, i am more the nice guy in the background but he doesn’t mind standing on stage being the crazy one, uplifting even in hopeless situations. In a neoangin show there is a high chance that things get out of control in a funny way, and then i need to be neoangin to turn it into something exciting.

neoangin, Party for 1

Neoangin aka. Jim Avignon, I know you from

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What about Jim Avignon? Is he a character too?

He is the main guy in my character portfolio and was there from the beginning, long time before i invented neoangin. In school i was always the smallest and youngest in my class and a rather insecure and easy to confuse one. After i finished school i knew by heart that i needed to become somebody else. No wonder Why Can’t I Be You by The Cure was my favorite song at that time. I found out moving to another city and having a new name helped a lot in inventing a new persona.

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Jim Avignon, Hypnotist

You’re inspired by daily life. What are the issues and stories that inspire you nowadays?

I am crazy about input (politics, gossip, internet, music, watching people in the subway, hearing strangers talk) and make up my mind to find hidden connections between all this stuff. i mash up all this input and sometimes some interesting images come up. I am interested in how people deal and struggle with the complexity and speed of modern life and i try to find and invent icons and characters that express that dilemma.

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You’re known for subverting the rules of the contemporary art market. But are there rules you do follow when it comes to contemporary art but also, more generally, when it comes to creating?

There are no rules apart from the one to be nice to those who are weaker than yourself. I decide by intuition and heart. I don’t believe in perfection and the one big career master plan, in fact i believe in learning by doing and making mistakes is important and sometimes beautiful when it comes to creativity.

I do believe that everything is political: how you plan your career, to whom you sell your painting, how you share your time work/family, the ways you produce and sell.

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Jim Avignon, Mural in Athens

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Jim Avignon, Cover of the coloring book for children

I read on your website that your new year resolution for 2016 is to do no exhibitions at all this year. That sounds very brave. So how are you spending the year? Publishing books? Doing more street interventions?

Well, that was one nice idea to have a year off, i imagined myself reading up that big pile of books i had bought in the previous years, going to the movies, doing a couple of holidays with my family and sitting in bars with friends and having drinks, but i am afraid i am the guy who can’t relax.

The first thing i did this year was to start to work with kids in refugee camps and then decided to release a coloring in book for them by myself. Now i am in Greece painting a big wall and i just received an invitation to Taiwan to paint life at the art fair. And of course when Pictoplasma asked me to do an exhibition for the festival i didn’t say “Sorry guys, i am having my year off!”

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What are you going to present at Pictoplasma?

So far, i have only decided on the title which will be Black Market. In my mind i see some out of control interior design and a giant rocking chair moving mysteriously. I also have this interactive installation called The Perfect Match i did in the last year that tells you who you really are that would fit there in a nice way. I see board games and characters painted on old plates that i just bought in a thrift store and of course there will be some stuff for sale as well at obscure black market prices – and there will be a secret pre-opening party on Tuesday with a friend of mine DJing in a robot costume. If you are already in Berlin then, please come!

Thanks Jim!

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Jim Avignon, Binary Hulahoop with Kathi Kaeppel exhibition at Galerie Crystal Ball in Berlin, 2014

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Jim Avignon, Guatemala, Guatemala. Photo via Brooklyn street art

Catch up with Jim Avignon today, tomorrow and over the weekend at the 12th Pictoplasma Conference & Festival in Berlin.
Jim Avignon’s exhibition Black Market is open at ReTramp Gallery in Berlin until May 8, from 12 AM to 8 PM.

See also: Pictoplasma focus: Julian Glander and Pictoplasma focus: Mr Bingo, rude postcards and dirty queens.

Order+Noise, a tug of war for motors, strings and rubber bands

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Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

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Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

I’ve been fascinated by the work of Ralf Baecker ever since i discovered it back in 2009. The way his projects disclose the inner logic and dynamics of machines speaks to the über geek. But you don’t need to be versed in the subtleties of technology to be touched by his installations. Their grace and deceptive simplicity, the way they never quite seem to reveal themselves completely appeal to the aesthete and the amateur of fine craft and enigma.

Order+Noise (Interface I), his latest installation currently on view at the NOME gallery in Berlin, is made of motors, strings and elastic bands set in motion by the random signals of Geiger-Müller tubes which pick up the natural ambient radiation of the earth and add an element of chance to the system.

Motors gently hum and pull coloured strings in opposite directions, like in a tug of war. The patterns designed by the network of threads and rubber bands lay bare the struggles, negotiations and fluctuations of the system.

Here, what underlines the aesthetic experience is the materiality by which action produces knowledge, transforming data space into real space. As observers take in the rules, operations and parameters of the work, they gain insight into their perception. The installation’s mechanical workings and network of strings allow us to explore the poetic potential of technology via its materiality, so that Interface I sits on the boundary between an imaginary field and an epistemological condition.

Ralf Baecker, Teaser: Order+Noise (Interface I)

By isolating and zooming in on the abstract mechanisms and systems that are at the core of digital media and information technology, the work of Baecker reveals their otherwise unsuspected rhythms and noises.

I had a Q&A with the artist right before the opening of his show in Berlin:

Hi Ralf! Order+Noise (Interface I) brings our attention to the ambient radiation of the earth. Why were you interested in exploring a geological phenomenon?

The ambient radiation of the earth is only a minor aspect of this work. In case of Interface I it is one way of feeding a system with entropy (chance) and an external rhythm, caused by the unpredictable radioactive decay of elements. I used these kind of “geological” detectors already in previous works, like Irrational Computing (2011) and Mirage (2014), where I measured the magnetic flux of the earth with a magnetometer. What I’m focusing on is the contrast of clean digital machinery and its operations and the crudeness of the geological minerals they are made of. The social and political issues that are connected to the mining of rare earth materials in many countries do not apply to silicon because it is made from quartz sand, which exists in large amounts on earth. With Irrational Computing I was investigating this material layer of contemporary technologies. I build crude digital elements from semi-conducting minerals, like galena, silicon carbide, etc, in its raw form directly taken from the crust of the earth.

Beside this material stack I am interested in the mathematical foundations of these technologies. A closer look reveals a fully closed deterministic system, that is the result of separating mathematics from the world and our experience of it, in order to create a pure formal system. And these are the systems that reach very deep in our daily lives now. Sure, the devices can produce some kind of pseudo randomness, emergent behaviour and we interact with them, but always in the framework of this strict formal system and their protocols.

I don’t think that the machines become more like us, it is more likely that we adapt to the languages of the machines, to become computable. Over the years I tried different approaches to investigates the logic of the internal structures of these systems on one side, and to break them up with more intuitive models on the other side.

In interface these random impulses are used to stimulate two mechanical systems that interact with each other through a network of strings and elastic bands. So the noise acts like a catalyst. From complexity theory we know the principle of self-organisation or “Order from Noise”. Whereby spontaneous order can arise by random fluctuations, like the flocking of birds or in an economy.

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Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

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Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

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Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

The installation explores the interaction between on the one hand, ambient radiation of the earth and on the other one, a set of motors, strings and elastic bands deployed in the gallery. Did you conceive the work as a metaphor about the way natural elements and our man-made industrial world influence each other?

Maybe you allow me to write a few words about metaphors. I’m struggling with the term. I never explicitly have a metaphor in mind, except maybe in Mirage, because my machines are based on symbolic interactions. Sure I don’t avoid hinting to analogies to other systems in other scales. But digital processes are per se not bound to any medium, silicon is just the most efficient and economic one. But every digital circuit can be translated into any medium, like water, air pressure, mechanics etc. I translate and enlarge these processes into other materials in order to allow a spectator to perceive them on an affective level.

Although many of your artworks deal with revealing the materiality of hidden structures and phenomena, there is also something inherently poetical and mysterious about them. At least, that’s the way i see them. What guides the aesthetics and design of your installations?

The aesthetics is always a result of a long experimental process. Usually it starts with a thought experiment that I strip down to a set of minimal components. For Interface I was trying to imagine the tiny and rapid interactions and transactions of a communication between two separate structures. How do they meet in one point and develop a language and get entangled it some kind of dialog. I tried different mechanical approaches, e.g. a push-based system, that turned out yo be too rough and tended to damage itself. There is always a gap between my imagination of a process, its physicality and its actual performance. I usually need a lot of iterations to find a good representation of my initial thought or even adapt my concept to the physical conditions. I started with this method a couple of years ago with Rechnender Raum (2007), I felt a little lost in working only in software, where I already tried to strip the aesthetics down to the minimum in order to offer a sight at the internal/raw aesthetics of these processes before they appear on a screen. But this did not work out for me me because, I still had the feeling that my practice is encapsulated in the logic of these strictly formal machines.

One thing that I have learned is that, making these processes transparent and open does not help to understand them but makes them even more opaque and mysterious. I became very much interested in “magical thinking” in contrast to a chronological “cause and effect” thinking. This thinking blends pretty good with contemporary complexity theory and “system thinking” where one “effect” can not be traced back to a single “cause”.

If we go back to the roots of such machines we will find metaphysical or ideological machines, like the ones of Ramon Llull ones, that are not tools but epistemological instruments.

Another important point, is that I don’t follow the usual separation between process and output. In most of my machines display and process are one, the display is where the process happens and at the same time it is indicating it. Similar to a combustion process, where a fuel and oxygen react with each other and produce an continuous flickering.

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Portrait of Ramon Llull

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Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2016. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de for NOME

The research and experiments necessary to the development of the exhibition were carried out within the framework of your research project Time of Non-Reality at the Graduate School of the University of the Arts Berlin. Could you tell us more about this research? And what is this idea of ‘non reality’?

For me the research project at the Graduate School of the UDK in Berlin is a very subjective/artistic genealogy of the digital and technological images. It acts as framework for me to speculate and to experiment. I’m interested in the fundamental concepts, mechanisms and ideas of the digital and the relations to the signs they produce at the other end (e.g. screen).

I stumbled about a quote by Norbert Wiener, in a transcriptions of one of the famous Macy Conferences: “Every digital device is really an analogical device which distinguishes region of attraction rather than by a direct measurement. In other words, a certain time of non-reality pushed far enough will make any device digital.”

“Time of non-reality” could also be understood as the time an electronically charged electronic component (e.g. transistor), or any bistable element, needs to switch from 0 (0 volts) to 1 (5 volts). Ideally, in our logic, there is nothing in between. But when implemented it into the physical, we have these transitions that appear millions of times per second in a contemporary digital device. The internal state of the machines, and what it represents (e.g. an image, a text or a sound), breaks down for a couple of nanoseconds, just to re-establish in the next stable state. The machines are build to blank these transitions, in order to prevent glitches or even a crash. But I’m using this idea to speculate about possible images in between.

As I tried to described earlier these machines are the result of separating mathematics from any empirical evidence, that took place in the early 20th century. The simple axiom “1+1=2” allows us to forget about the apples that we once counted to realise. But these formal systems are now interacting with the world, they produce reality. So my research also explores the gap between an ideal formalized immaterial system and its re-implementation in the world.

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Ralf Baeker, Mirage, 2014. Installation view at Asian Culture Center Gwuangju, for ACT Festival. Photo via Creative Applications

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Ralf Baeker, Mirage, 2014. Installation view at Asian Culture Center Gwuangju, for ACT Festival

I was very impressed by Mirage when i saw it at the ACT Festival in Gwangju. I was fascinated by the way the piece is anchored in sophisticated algorithms and Artificial Intelligence but at the same time it speculates about machines that fall asleep and dream. Do you think we should be afraid of machines’ dreams? Doesn’t that make them to freakingly similar to us?

No, I don’t think we have to be afraid. There is still a very big difference between us and artificial intelligence. Most artificial intelligence algorithms are made for one single purpose, they are not universal and their aims and goals are defined by us. What freaks us out is the unpredictability of such systems that arise if their complexity increases. I think this is what we are witnessing right now. We are in the paradox situation that, on one side we are totally excited about the benefits of these technologies and on the other side they evoke a strange feeling of unease. Another kind of sublime, a technological sublime, if we have the enormous world spanning infrastructures in mind they running on.

And because we can’t control our own dreams and hallucinates, i suspect we can’t control the dreams of the machines either. Was it something you experienced while observing Mirage in action? Did the projection and ‘behaviour’ of Mirage surprise you? Did they bring anything unexpected?

The “dreams” or “hallucinations” of the machines are the result of what they have “seen” before. In unsupervised neural networks these “sleep” cycles are used to consolidate the previously learned. They are actually “internal” images, that were not intended to be displayed. Probably everybody knows the images of google’s deep dream. They always include these little puppies, snails or frogs, because these images were part of the training data set. Analogous I can only dream images or things, that I have seen or have imagined before. If a two year old child has never seen or been told about a fox it can not dream it. But the interesting thing is what develops over time, the narration, how our brain constantly tries to make sense of the images that appear and involve them into a plot. Mirage produces plots. It was not trained with static images, it was trained just with a constantly changing one dimensional signal that represents the changes of the magnetic flux of the earth. For earlier experiments, I trained my system with simple sine waves. After a couple of cycles, it was able to recreate sine wave like signals with variations. Mirage recombines the previous sampled data and weaves a new chronology. These idea of machines that create space on time applies to most of my works as well as for Interface.

Thanks Ralf!

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Ralf Baecker, Order+Noise (Interface I), 2015. Photo by Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

More photos!

Order+Noise (Interface I) is on view at NOME, Berlin from 23 April until 18 June 2016.

Ralf Baecker is also having a solo show at Kassler Kunstverein, from 13 May until 3 July 2016.

Confessions of a Data Broker and other tales of a quantified society

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The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

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!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Reconstruction of Julian Assange’s study room at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

While in Berlin for the Anthropocene Campus, i visited the one show you shouldn’t miss if you happen to be in town this week and next: Nervous Systems. Quantified Life and the Social Question.

The exhibition smartly enrolled artists, media historians and writers to chart the history and current rise of data-technologies and the world they bring about, exploring and exposing our quantified society and the processes of self-quantification. The food for thought that this show provide is overwhelming. Almost as much as this (partial) review of it!

Nervous Systems was co-curated by Anselm Franke and by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective but because pretty much every single artwork and historical artifact in that deserves to be mentioned, i thought it would be better for everyone’s patience and sanity if i focused on one segment of the exhibition only.

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The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

I picked up the one called The White Room, for the very arbitrary reason that it was curated by Tactical Technology Collective whose brilliant twitter feed i’ve been stalking for months. The other strength of The White Room is its combatant, encouraging and engaged attitude towards rampant quantification, loss of autonomy and demise of privacy. It gives visitors the means to understand their data and devices but it also provides them with the tools necessary to gain more control over their digital life.

The White Room opens up the black box of our daily technological environment, brings to light the links between Silicon Valley’s most successful start-ups and the military-industrial complex, and even uncover the Big Brother that hides behind the benevolent masks of some philanthropic initiatives.

Perhaps the best introduction to The White Room is actually this video that sums a research that Tactical Technology Collective has made into information brokering services:


Tactical Technology Collective, Confessions of a Data Broker

Inspired by David Ogilvy’s book Confessions of an Advertising Man, Confessions of a Data Broker presents results from interviews with and research into data brokers in Europe, North America and Asia, providing insights into how the industry works, who is buying/selling data and what it means for users.

What is worrying is that data brokering is not only unreliable and invasive of your privacy, it is also opaque. It is indeed often very difficult for individuals to find out what data a broker holds on them, how they used it and how long they store it.

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James Bridle, Citizen Ex

Citizen Ex is a browser plugin that makes us better understand data gathering. Once installed on your computer, Citizen Ex shows where the websites you are visiting are located geographically. Over time, Citizen Ex builds a user’s algorithmic citizenship based on your browsing habits.

Whether or not you download Bridle’s software, you already have an algorithmic citizenship. Every time you click on a link, every time you visit a website, you leave traces behind. Companies collect this data in order to deliver content and ads better targeted to each individual. But that’s not all! Data gathering is also used for credit rating, insurance, ID verification, health care and fraud detection. And of course, government surveillance agencies like the NSA and GCHQ monitor your data to decide whether to spy on you.

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Intelligence Community Watch puts data gathering into the hands of the citizens. ICWatch has mined LinkedIn for résumés posted by people who state that they have worked for the NSA or Intelligence community or for related contractors and programs. ICWatch then compiled these findings into a searchable database of the US intelligence community. Transparency Toolkit, who developed it, say the aim of the site is to “watch the watchers” and better understand surveillance programmes and any human rights abuses associated with them.

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Aram Bartholl, Forgot you Password, 2013

In 2012, LinkedIn.com got hacked and passwords for nearly 6.5 million user accounts were stolen. A few months later parts of the decrypted password list appeared on the Internet. Aram Bartholl printed 8 books that list the 4.7 million passwords leaked in alphabetical order. The work reminds us that the safety of our data can never be guaranteed.

Some of the artistic projects selected in the show are using everyday objects and tech devices to demonstrate that the “I have nothing to hide” dismissal of surveillance is unwise now that we are part of a quantified society: Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum’s stuffed panda (see SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy. Talking secrets and pandas with Jacob Appelbaum), Sascha Pohflepp’s Button camera, Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver’s sneaky Newstweek… And Un Fitbits:


Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, Unfit Bits

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Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, Un Fitbits. GIf via bionymous

Un Fitbits enables you to obfuscate your data traces by generating fake data, while giving you the ability to control and understand your real data. All you have to do is clip the Fitbit bracelet to a metronome, dog, drill, bicycle or pendulum and they’ll get fit and active for you.

The artists were interested in FitBit after noticing that insurance companies were giving away Fitbit to their customers. Wearing the device and walking a certain number steps would earn customers discounts. How do companies benefit from your healthy lifestyle? Can your data be considered ‘yours’ if it can be used against you?

The White Room also presented a series of projects that are decidedly at the most dystopian end of the quantification spectrum:

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Sesame Credit. Photo via The Independent

Sesame Credit is a credit-rating system that scores Chinese citizens based on both online and offline data: their spending behaviour, habits, minor traffic violations, fiscal and government information, interests and affiliations. A high score will result in a better chance to find a job, get a date, rent a car without paying a deposit and be deemed ‘trustworthy‘ by the government. The project was approved by the Chinese government as a pilot for a future nationwide database, an individual citizen ‘social credit-rating’ system, planned for nationwide rollout by 2020.

Some projects were labelled “Big Mama” by the curators. Dressed up as care, initiatives such as eye-scanning for refugee aid and facial recognition to monitor attendances in churches look more like Big Mama (“It’s for your own good”) than Big Brother.


Jordan: Iris Scanning Program In Action

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has introduced an iris-scanning technology to verify the identity of Syrian refugees in Jordan. The pilot program allow refugees to withdraw their benefits from ATM machines but also to buy groceries through looking into an iris scanner.

The project is implemented by tech company Iris Guard which sells the same iris-scanning technology for border control, prisons and national ID. Iris Guard has 3 advisory board members: the CEO of a global merchant bank, the former hear of MI6 and the former Homeland Security Advisor to the President of the US.

Electronic databases of personal information raise privacy but also security concerns. Databases are being hacked all the time, and that’s a huge threat to privacy and security. Hacked biometric data is particularly problematic, because unlike credit cards or even social security numbers, the data cannot be modified.

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Churchix compares CCTV camera footage of people to a database of congregants of the church. Photo Face-Six via

Churchix is a facial recognition-based ‘event-attendance tracking’ software designed to help churches easily identify members of their congregation, and record their attendance at church and church-related events. Churchix identifies individuals in ‘probe’ photos or videos and then matches them with previously uploaded reference photos. Face-Six, the company behind it uses similar software for products used in casinos, airports, shopping malls and at border control posts. Churches in Indonesia, the US, Portugal, Africa and India have already adopted the system.

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The Google Empire (information graphic / wood and acrylic.) Photo La Loma

A table exposed the presence of marketing departments, Washington D.C. expats, lobbyists and Wall Street analysts behind the sleek facade of some of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups. Think of how Google went from the friendly search engine to Alphabet, the owner and developer of self-driving cars, DNA databases, AI and robotics. What used to be a bunch of bespectacled geeks is now a group of powerful companies who have accumulated vast amounts of power, knowledge, and wealth.

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The Fertility Chip (simulation / laser cut and engraving.) Photo La Loma

In 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a grant of 11,316,324 US dollars to MicroCHIPS Biotech to develop a contraceptive chip that can be embedded in a woman’s body for up to 16 years. The technology would enable a remove control of a woman’s hormones, activating her ability to either conceive, or prevent fertilization.

MicroCHIPS hopes to introduce the product in 2018. Note that the technology is intended for women and girls in poorer countries.

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Inside Palantir offices. Credit Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

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The Shire (model of a office room of the Palantir). Photo La Loma

Data-analysis company Palantir Technologies might keep a lower public profile than Airbnb and Uber but it is one of the Silicon Valleys most powerful start-ups. It has contracts with government groups, including the CIA, NSA, the FBI, the Marine Corps and the Air Force. We know that its software processes huge amounts of disparate data to elaborate predictions and conclusions, enabling fraud detection, data security, consumer behavior study, rapid health care delivery, etc. Rumour has it that it was them who provided the data-analysis skills that located Bin Laden. But little else is known publicly about Palantir.

The exhibition reproduced a model of Palantir’s head office, the Shire, based on photographs for a 2014 New York Times article. The world map is based on the strategy board game Risk: The Game of Global Domination.

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Patches that can be purchased online, along with t-shirts, calendars and coffee mugs from the apparel store off Lockheed Martin, America’s largest contractor, making fighter planes, cluster bombs, combat ships and designing nuclear weapons. It is also the largest private intelligence contractor in the world, working in the past on surveillance programs for the Pentagon, CIA, NSA and making biometric identification systems for the FBI

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The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

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The White Room, Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

On Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, workshops, demos and discussions help visitors understand the devices and interfaces we use every day. White Room workers are also on hand to help visitors navigate an alternative “App Center” that offers tools to regain control over their data and their tech gadgets.

More views of the exhibition Nervous Systems:

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Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

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Opening of Nervous Systems. Photo: © Laura Fiorio/HKW

Nervous Systems. Quantified Life and the Social Question was co-curated by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective and Anselm Franke. The show is at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin until 9 May 2016.

Related stories: Obfuscation. A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, Sheriff Software: the games that allow you to play traffic cop for real, The Influencers: Former MI5 spy Annie Machon on why we live in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned, SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy. Talking secrets and pandas with Jacob Appelbaum.

Relics of the Cold War

PRESS PHOTO ONLY TO BE USED IN RELATION WITH EXHIBITION RELICS OF THE COLD WAR IN DHM, BERLIN 2016. CUTTING PICTURES IS NOT ALLOWED. Latvia, Liepaja. At the former Soviet naval base Liepaja an old bunker lies in the Baltic Sea. Photo: Martin Roemers
Bunker in the Baltic Sea, near the former Soviet naval base of Liepāja, Latvia, 2002. © Martin Roemers

PRESS PHOTO ONLY TO BE USED IN RELATION WITH EXHIBITION RELICS OF THE COLD WAR IN DHM, BERLIN 2016. CUTTING PICTURES IS NOT ALLOWED. Germany West, Lorch, Former depot of the Bundeswehr. Foto: Martin Roemers
West Germany, Lorch, Former depot of the Bundeswehr in a fallout shelter, Lorch 2008. © Martin Roemers

PRESS PHOTO ONLY TO BE USED IN RELATION WITH EXHIBITION RELICS OF THE COLD WAR IN DHM, BERLIN 2016. CUTTING PICTURES IS NOT ALLOWED. Germany East, Juterbog  Soviet Army hospital. Foto: Martin Roemers
Gynecologist’s chair in a deserted Soviet Army hospital, Juterbog, East Germany, 2007. © Martin Roemers

Military barracks, atomic-bomb shelters, air force bases, storage spaces for nuclear weapons, army graveyards, abandoned training grounds, underground tunnels, decaying control centers, rusty tanks, fallen statues and other dilapidated monuments. Dutch photographer Martin Roemers spent 10 years traveling on both sides of the former Iron Curtain to document the architectural and structural remains of the Cold War. The quest for relics of a war that lasted 40 years but never turned into an armed conflict brought him to Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania but also to Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, and of course to both parts of the once-divided Germany.

Some of the images the photographer took all over the continent are currently on view at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Roemers grew up during the Cold War, a time when the Soviets and the Americans had missiles that could reach and obliterate their target anywhere in the world within 30 seconds. He wanted to document the remnants of the crisis that served as a background to his youth. With the photos, Roemers also wanted to create a kind of memorial to the war. After a real war, a commemoration culture develops, he told DW. The veterans and victims have their ceremonies and monuments are built. But the Cold War never became a real war, at least not in Europe, so there are not many physical reminders, let alone a commemoration culture.
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Radioroom of the Dutch civil defense organization in a nuclear shelter, Grouw, The Netherlands. 2001. © Martin Roemers

GERMANY, Germany, Berlin, Teufelsberg, This image is from the project Relics of the Cold War (1997-2009). Former listeningpost of the USA army from the Cold War. Europe, west, EU, cold war, army, military, listeningpost, USA, espionage,  DUITSLAND, Duitsland, Berlijn, Teufelsberg, Voormalige afluisterpost van het Amerikaanse leger uit de Koude Oorlog.  Europa, west, EU, koude oorlog, afluisterpost, Amerika, leger, afluisteren, spionage,  DEUTSCHLAND, Deutschland, Berlin, Teufelsberg, Europa, west, EU,  Photo: Martin Roemers
Former listening post of the USA army from the Cold War. West Berlin, Germany, 2008. © Martin Roemers

The exhibition underlines that the Cold War was both a confrontation between two systems and a system in itself: one that has left remains of army bases, bunkers and other infrastructures that look fairly similar on both sides of the Iron Curtain. They built the same defense structures out of the same fears, he added.

As Bernd Greiner, Director of the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies, there is an important element we tend forget when we talk of the Cold War in Europe or the USA: the same period saw ‘hot wars’ raging other parts of the world (in Korea, Vietnam, etc.) and the US and the Soviets as well as their respective allies intervened in these conflicts and left traces that still linger: environmental pollution, economic damages, health problems suffered by local populations, landmines, etc.

Germany East, Altes Lager Mural of a Soviet Soyuz (left) and an American Apollo spacecraft in the former pilot school of a Soviet air force base. The Russian-American Apollo-SoyuzTest was the first joint flight of the U.S. and Soviet space programs in 1975. The project was seen as a symbol of the policy of detente between the two superpowers. cold war; army; military; war; Germany; Russia; USSR; Soviet Union; politics; GDR; DDR; Europe; EU; statue; lenin; painting; art; portrait; propaganda, spacecraft, spaceship, space,  Duitsland, Altes Lager Muurschildering van Spoetnik in voormalige pilotenschool bij  verlaten Sovjet luchtmachtbasis in voormalig Oost-Duitsland.  Het vaartuig links is duidelijk een Sojoez, het vaartuig rechts is wat minder duidelijk maar is blijkbaar een Russische interpretatie van een Amerikaanse Apollo capsule. Verder is te zien dat de ruimtevaartuigen elkaar naderen. De muurschildering beeldt het Apollo-Sojoez Test Project uit waarbij Amerikanen en Russen een koppeling in de ruimte uitvoerden. De koppeling vond plaats op 17 juli 1975. Het Apollo-Sojoez Test Project was een politieke onderneming in een warmer moment van de koude oorlog die samenwerking tussen de Amerikanen en Russen moest uitdrukken. Voor details zie ook http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo-Soyuz_Test_Project  Koude Oorlog, Rusland, Sovjet-Unie, USSR, Rusland, leger, luchtmacht, ruimtevaart, kosmonauten Photo: Martin Roemers
Germany East, Altes Lager Mural of a Soviet Soyuz (left) and an American Apollo spacecraft in the former pilot school of a Soviet air force base. The Russian-American Apollo-Soyuz Test was the first joint flight of the U.S. and Soviet space programs in 1975. The project was seen as a symbol of the policy of detente between the two superpowers. © Martin Roemers

Germany West, Marienthal Former nuclear bunker for the west German government. The German bundeskanzler and his ministers would be transferred to this bunker in case of a nuclear war. cold war, army, military, war, Germany, Russia, USSR, Soviet Union, politics, GDR, DDR, Europe, EU, nuclear, bunker, government Duitsland, Marienthal Voormalige bunker voor de West-Duitse regering t.t.v. een aanval met kernwapens. Europa, dreiging atoombom, schuilkelder, Koude Oorlog, atoombunker, West-Duitsland Foto: Martin Roemers
West Germany, Marienthal. Former nuclear bunker for the west German government. The German bundeskanzler and his ministers would be transferred to this bunker in case of a nuclear war. © Martin Roemers

Germany East, Brandenburg, Wollenberg, This image is from the project Relics of the Cold War (1997-2009). Underground NVA bunker. NVA was the East German Peoples Army. Europe, west, EU, cold war, GDR, DDR, NVA, cold war, Europa; cold war; army; military; war; politics, Europe; EU; nuclear; bunker;  history, conflict, USSR, Soviet Union, Russia Duitsland Oost, Brandenburg, Wollenberg, NVA bunker. Europa, west, EU, bunker, DDR, Koude oorlog, leger,  Deutschland, Brandenburg, Wollenberg, Troposphärenfunkzentrale 301 von der NVA. Europa, west, EU, Kalter Krieg, DDR, Bunker,  Photo: Martin Roemers
Underground bunker of the NVA (the East German Peoples Army), Wollenberg, East Germany, 2005. © Martin Roemers

Bunkers offered a sense of security in the face of total annihilation. Underground shelters were built all over Europe for the political elite, the military and part of the civilian population but the reality was that they were not suitable for people to live there for long periods of time.

RUSSIA, Russia, Jerjomino, Old Russian army trucks. Eastern Europe, Europe East, Baltics, Baltic Republics, USSR, Soviet Union, Cold War, army, military, car, cars, truck, trucks, ZIL RUSLAND, Rusland,  Oude Russische legertrucks. Oost Europa, Oost-Europa, Balten, Baltische landen, Balticum, USSR, Sovjet Unie, Sovjet-Unie, Koude Oorlog, truck, trucks, auto, transport, auto's, leger,  RUSSLAND, Russland,  Ost Europa, Ost-Europa, Baltikum, UdSSR, Sowjetunion, SU,  Photo: Martin Roemers
Old Russian army truck in Yeremino, Russia. © Martin Roemers

Relics of the cold war
Former submarine base ‘Object 825 GPOe’ of the Soviet Navy in the Balaklava Bay at the Black Sea. It was a service and repairing station for submarines and an ammunition storage. Sevastopol, Crimea, Ukraine. 2005. © Martin Roemers

Germany East, Altes Lager,  Mural, depicting the siege over Nazi Germany, in the pilot school on a Soviet airforce base. cold war; army; military; war; Germany; Russia; USSR; Soviet Union; politics; GDR; DDR; Europe; EU; statue; painting; art; portrait; propaganda Duitsland, Altes Lager (Brandenburg) Muurschildering van het Russische leger in een verlaten kazerne in de voormalige DDR. Rusland, Sovjet-Unie, soldaten, Rode Leger, koude oorlog Photo: Martin Roemers
East Germany, Altes Lager. Mural depicting the siege over Nazi Germany, in a Soviet school for aircraft technicians, Altes Lager, East Germany, 1997 © Martin Roemers

PRESS PHOTO ONLY TO BE USED IN RELATION WITH EXHIBITION RELICS OF THE COLD WAR IN DHM, BERLIN 2016. CUTTING PICTURES IS NOT ALLOWED. GERMANY, Germany east, Lieberose Left behind ammunition on former exercise terrain of the Soviet army. Photo: Martin Roemers
East Germany, Lieberose, Ammunition parts left behind on a former Soviet army training area, Lieberose, 1998. © Martin Roemers

PRESS PHOTO ONLY TO BE USED IN RELATION WITH EXHIBITION RELICS OF THE COLD WAR IN DHM, BERLIN 2016. CUTTING PICTURES IS NOT ALLOWED. POLAND Poland, Borne Sulinowo Cemetery for Russian soldiers. Foto: Martin Roemers
Poland, Borne Sulinowo, Grave in a cemetery for Russian soldiers, Borne Sulinowo 2005. © Martin Roemers

PRESS PHOTO ONLY TO BE USED IN RELATION WITH EXHIBITION RELICS OF THE COLD WAR IN DHM, BERLIN 2016. CUTTING PICTURES IS NOT ALLOWED. GERMANY, Germany east,  Sachsen Anhalt, Altengrabow Russian tank which was used as a target on former shooting range of the soviet army. The terrain is now in use by the German army. foto: Martin Roemers
East Germany, Altengrabow, Tank which was used as a target on former Soviet army training area. The terrain is still used by the German army, 2004. © Martin Roemers

When you look at these photos now, they serve as a reminder of how things used to be in the Cold War, Roemers told DW. But you can also imagine how things could be again in the political climate of today. That’s the important thing about showing them now.

Two video interviews are shown in the exhibition space. In the first one, Martin Roemers talks about the motivations and adventures behind the photo series. In the other one, Bernd Greiner, Director of the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies, provides historical information about the Cold War era.

Interview with Martin Roemers about the exhibition Relics of the Cold War

Interview with historian Prof. Dr. Bernd Greiner about the Cold War

Deutsches Historisches Museum, Eröffnung der Ausstellung:  Relikte des Kalten Krieges Fotografien von Martin Roemers 4. März bis 14. August 2016
View of the exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Copyright © Martin Roemers

Relics of the Cold War is at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin until 14 August 2016.

Pictoplasma focus: Julian Glander

Like all Pictoplasma guests, Julian Glander creates little fellows. His have been dipped in cotton candy and other similarly sugary substances. They live a merry life, star in comic strips, music videos, short films, adverts and illustrations but they particularly shine when they get to frolic in GIFs!

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Julian Glander, GIF portrait

Glander also made a video game. It’s called Lovely Weather We’re Having and is probably the typical gamer’s worst nightmare: it has no goal and involves a lot of weather data.

Julian Glander will participate to the Pictoplasma conference in May. There’s little chance i can make it this year. As a consolation prize, i get to interview some of the conference speakers. It’s not quite as fun as being in Berlin for the festival but it still allows me to get to know some really talented artists:

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Animated looping valentine buddies for Nickelodeon on-air department. AD: Stef Shank

Hi Julian! You work a lot with GIFs. I’m like 99% of this planet, i love GIFs but i can’t explain why. Since you work with them closer maybe you’ve developed your how rational explanation about the appeal of GIFs. What do you think make GIFs so irresistible? Why do you like working with them so much?

They’re so tiny and compact — like one little morsel of animation. Just one bite. I think they’ve taken off recently because they’re so easy to digest — you can basically read a GIF instantly, and if you like it you can let yourself be hypnotized by it for as long as you want. I like working on GIFs because it’s a manageable format to convey a single composition and concept. Some animators think of GIFs as short movies but for me, they’re more like illustrations that have just ever so slightly been brought to life.

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Lovely Weather We’re Having

Lovely Weather We’re Having

Lovely Weather We’re Having, the video game you developed together with Eugene Burden is ‘goal-free’ and about the local weather.
Why did you want to make a goal free game?

As a working adult, I’m pounded down relentlessly by goals, challenges, and time limits, so when I’m thinking about what media I want to consume, that’s not really something I’m looking for. For me, the best video game experiences are when I go a bit “off the track” of the game — driving around aimlessly with the radio on in Grand Theft Auto, walking through the tall grass in Zelda and hearing it swish-swish against you, that kinda thing. I still think Lovely Weather We’re Having is a “challenging” game, but not in the traditional way– more that it challenges you to stop and reflect for a bit.

Also, weather is either this extremely boring topic people resort to when they’ve ran out of things to say or the source of heated debate about climate change. So why has the weather such an important role in your game?

That’s one opinion! For what it’s worth, I think weather is incredible, and borderline magical. What makes it an interesting premise for a game, IMO, is the commonality and bigness of it. Weather conditions run all of our lives and we’re totally at the mercy of the environment.

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NASA, GIFs based on responses from Tumblr’s Answer Time with Astronaut Scott Kelly. Production Strategist: Margaux Olverd

You live in Pittsburg, right? I’ve only been there once for a week and i loved it. It’s one of the two only cities in the USA where i could move. Could you tell us about the visual art scene in the city? Which local artists or designers would you recommend us to have a look at? And does the city inspire your work in any way?

Ahh, Pittsburgh! Actually I moved away last week after living there for two years. I’m back in New York, for some reason. But the ‘Burgh is a great city for artists because the rent is cheap, and there is a really neat (if comparatively small) local art squad. Some of my favorite inspiring Pittsburgh creative folks are Xtina Lee, Dan Allende, Paolo Pedercini, and Mr Rogers (RIP!)

Any advice you could give to young illustrators / students who would like to have a fulfilling career as an illustrator/’art person’?

Embrace new technology. Embrace the brand new things that your professors and mentors say are “just trends”. It’s the best way to find a niche for yourself.

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Please Look At Me, a weekly comic strip on Vice.com. Editor’d by Nick Gazin

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Promotional GIF for Jamie XX’s hit song GOOD TIMES ft Yung Thug + Popcaan. Via XL records

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Night Time, A comic spread for issue 14 of Faesthetic magazine

What are you going to present at Pictoplasma?

SECRETS! That’s the key word on my brain as I put together my talk. I’m going to be showing off some process secrets and behind-the-scenes methods that I don’t usually share, as well as some “business” secrets and pitch work that hasn’t seen the light of day. So basically, by the end of the talk you’ll have everything you need to become Julian Glander and steal my life. It’s gonna be must-see stuff!

Thanks Julian!

Catch up with Julian Glander at the 12th Pictoplasma Conference & Festival on 4 – 8 MAY 2016 in Berlin.

Bits, Pieces and blooming plastic

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Nils Völker, Bits and Pieces, 2016. At NOME Gallery. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

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Nils Völker, Bits and Pieces, 2016. At NOME Gallery. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

Plastic is everywhere: it’s used to 3D print pretty much anything, it wraps our food and books, invades our oceans, is ingested by animals, and because there’s some karma in the world after all, it travels up the food chain and we end up consuming it too. Once in a while however, comes an artwork that gives the much-maligned material some nobility by reminding us of its inherent beauty and pliability.

Bits and Pieces, a work on view for a few more days at the NOME gallery in Berlin, consists of a single sculpture made out of 108 motorized spheres that open and close in orchestrated rhythms. The structure evokes blooming flowers, children toys, or swarms of insects that float above your head and seem to be instilled with a life of their own.


Nils Völker, Bits and Pieces, 2016

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Nils Völker, Bits and Pieces, 2016. At NOME Gallery. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

The artist behind this multicoloured magic trick is Nils Völker. I recently caught up with him over emails:

Hi Nils! You’re showing a new installation at the NOME Project gallery. Could you tell us about it?

It consists mainly out of very colorful toy balls, so-called Hoberman Spheres. These balls are hanging in different heights in the middle of the space and constantly open and close in a controlled rhythm. So it looks like a large wave flowing through the space and it appears pretty dynamic although each of the toy balls remains in place and just opens and closes at the right time.

From what i see on the NOME page there won’t be any inflatable. I love inflatables. Please don’t say you got bored of inflatables…
But apart from that, how different is the piece from your other works?

No, you’re right, since a while it’s actually the first work which doesn’t inflate anything. But don’t worry I will surely continue to experiment in this area and create new installations made from inflating/deflating cushions. It’s pretty surprising how many variations in shape and material you can realize. For the last one at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum for example I used an extraordinary type of blue-white plastic canvas which I haven’t seen before in my life but you see it really everywhere in the streets in Taiwan.

Nils Völker, Twelve, 2016

I think on the first sight the new installation is of course quite different from my previous ones. But it is also made out of many more or less everyday objects, each doing the exact same thing and the programming leads to a surprisingly dynamic and organic movement through the space. Similar to my previous works is maybe that when you look at one of those objects isolated it’s pretty ordinary but if you have many of them synchronized it gets pretty fascinating and mesmerizing.

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Nils Völker, Bits and Pieces, 2016. At NOME Gallery. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

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Nils Völker, Bits and Pieces, 2016. At NOME Gallery. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

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Nils Völker, Bits and Pieces, 2016. At NOME Gallery. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

I’d also be interested to hear about the material you use. You’ve worked with garbage bags, lego parts and now plastic objects. Why this interest for the ordinary materials? Are you never tempted to work with super fancy parts and materials?

Surprisingly not much. I think Luca Barbeni, the director of the gallery, saw as well the opportunities in the early prototype I made a while ago and from that point he gave me a huge leap of faith and we both focused merely on realizing the best possible setup for his gallery space.

I’m not really sure why exactly I’m attracted by this kind of materials. Maybe it’s because they are boring on the first sight and usually overlooked by most people. But if you have a closer look at a simple garbage bag for example it is surprising how the material crumples and makes this sizzling noise. I also like when people still can somehow understand what is going on and how it works. It might make it even more compelling when you use such ordinary things. From fancy, unknown materials you’d rather expect fancy and unknown behavior.

And similarly, would you say that the technology you use to create your installation is ‘ordinary’ as well? Or do you think you need to use sophisticated software, tools and systems to give some nobility to humble materials?

Well, I think this is mainly a question of the perspective. To some people it looks pretty much like rocket science and a few years ago I actually thought the same when I saw things like that. But in the end I’m only using knowledge you can gain from the internet and with a few years of tinkering. And with every new project I still learn a lot of new things about the hard- and software and keep on improving my skills.

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

There is a very nice upcoming exhibition at La Gaité Lyrique in Paris called Extra Fantômes which opens on the 7th of April. And besides I’m looking forward to catch up on some ideas and prototypes which I paused working on during the past weeks.

Thanks Nils!

Bits and Pieces is at the NOME Project gallery until 15 april 2016.

Pictoplasma focus: Mr Bingo, rude postcards and dirty queens

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Hate Mail

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Dirty Queen, via Erotic Review

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Hair Portraits

I suspect that Mr Bingo is not as odious as he’d like us to think. And even if he were, i’ll forever admire his typically English touch of diplomacy:

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Does Mr Bingo work for free?

In 2011, Mr Bingo started mailing insulting postcards to total strangers. All you had to do was ask and pay 50 pounds for the service. Probably because his hand-drawn messages had more foolishness than bile, people queued to be mocked and abused. The press loved the idea too and Mr Bingo soon ran a spectacularly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a Hate Mail book. If you live under a rock (like i do occasionally, nothing wrong with that), you might have missed the Hate Mail brouhaha but encountered his work in austere newspapers, dandy magazines, or on cans of beer, restaurant walls and skateboards.

Mr Bingo and his acerbic wit will participate to the Pictoplasma conference in May. I’d really like to go this year but if i can’t, i’ll have a series of upcoming interviews with the conference speakers to console me. Here’s the first one:

Hello Mr Bingo! I’m sure you’ve been interviewed thousands of times about it, but i’d like to talk about Hate Mail. The Hate Mail works are witty and funny but but did anyone ever get seriously hurt or angry about any of it?

Yes, you’re right, I’m bored of being asked about it.
As far as I know, nobody has been hurt or angry about any of my Hate Mail, but then if they are, we’ll probably never know.

When Hate Mail is available for sale, it comes with clear guidelines which say that I have no responsibility for any sad or suicidal feelings and it really is all your fault. Once you stipulate that upfront, unless they really are thick as fuck, people are too embarrassed to admit that they’re offended. Generally though, people who buy my stuff aren’t thick as fuck, because they understand the subversive/comical nature of the project.

Was it ever a possibility that worried you?

No. I’m not a total cunt by the way, I have 4 personal ‘rules’ for topics which are out of bounds for me. These are race, sexuality, disability and Religion. I care morally/ethically about the first three, the religion one is in there through absolute fear.

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Hate Mail

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Hate Mail

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Hate Mail

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Hate Mail

Are you still responding to Hate Mail requests? Or have you had enough of spreading horrors?

Yeah, I’ve stopped doing hate Mail.

Oldie made this video in support of Mr Bingo’s Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for Hate Mail

And if you had to Hate Mail yourself? What would it look like?

Well there’s so many things I hate about myself, looks, personality, mental problems, anxiety, loneliness, a terrible lover, it would be hard to choose one.
I find it’s always better to choose one thing and keep it simple and hard hitting rather than a diluted mixture of things.

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Illustration for the Washington Post

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Interactive iPad illustration with movable parts for Project Magazine

You also work for newspapers and do some illustrations related to politics and politicians. Do you manage to keep your own political views to yourself? Or does any of your opinions transpire in your drawings?

I actually stopped doing commercial work now, but yes I’ve done a few illustrations for ‘clever’ publications.

Sadly, I live in my own little bubble and have no idea what’s going on in news, current affairs and politics and as a result, I’m not even able to formulate opinions on politics. The only opinions that come out in my drawings are observations on modern life I suppose, kind of observational comedy.

I wish I did know about politics and had views and angles because I reckon I could make some killer work in that field!

Mr Bingo’s illustrations for ‘Show Dogs: The Road to Crufts’. Directed by James Newton

I love dogs (well, staffies mostly) and i always dreamt of going to the Crufts show. It looks too serious not to be hilarious. Could you tell us about Show Dogs? How did you get to make that film?

I was lucky enough to meet a bloke in a pub who was the director of Show Dogs and he asked me if I was interested in doing some type and animated bits for the film.
There’s a lot of different reasons for doing jobs but with that one, it was one of those “I just wanna be part of this, it’s a fucking documentary about people who show dogs” reasons.

Any advice you could give to young illustrators / students who would like to have a fulfilling career as an illustrator?

The most successful people in this industry aren’t necessarily the most talented ones, they’re just the ones who actually bother to do stuff.

What are you going to present at Pictoplasma?

I’m going to talk about how to get the public to fund your stupid ideas.

Thanks Mr Bingo!

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Illustration for the Camden Town Brewery

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Skatebearding

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Illustration for Foxtel

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Illustration for Tiny Acts of Rebellion

Catch up with Mr Bingo at the 12th Pictoplasma Conference & Festival on 4 – 8 MAY 2016 in Berlin.