Category Archives: art in Brussels

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

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

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE at Bruthaus Gallery, 2019


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Dani!

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

How the humble sweatpants became “critical wearables”

While in Brussels last month, i went to BOZAR to see Somewhere In Between, an exhibition that “provides a unique window on today’s artistic hotbeds of Europe.” I found the show to be surprisingly good. There were moments when i despaired that i’d never truly understand contemporary art. And moments when i got happy, excited and genuinely amazed. I was particularly impressed with a row of sweatpants neatly aligned on one of the walls of the exhibition space.


Life Sport, Sweatpants at BOZAR. Installation view


LIFE SPORT, with Puppies Puppies. Photo: Life Sport

The garments are by LIFE SPORT, an anonymous art collective that sells (mostly) grey sweatpants at a reasonable price to anyone in need of a leisure item. The artists then invest the money earned in exhibitions they organize with other artists.

The work of the art collective is fueled by the city where they are based: Athens. The members of LIFE SPORT noticed that in the Greek capital, sweatpants act as a great equalizer. No matter their social class, gender or age, people wear sweatpants in Athens. But there’s also a political side to grey sweatpants. To some, they evoke nothing but unemployment and disorder.


LIFE SPORT, Sweatpants Production. Image Life Sport

The model LIFE SPORT chose for its sweatpants is not a random one, it is based on a pair of Nikes from the 90s, a time when the American corporation still produced garments in Greece (before they moved to Asia where labour costs are much lower.) A pair costs 35 euros. You can buy them online or in LIFE SPORT hybrid space in Athens, it is both an art gallery and a sweatpants shop. As the artists explained in an interview with Dis Magazine:

“We are utilizing the art system that we are part of to sell our product and we use their formats to advertise our brand. Dealing with sweatpants opposed to artworks allows for a less abstract relation. The prices are based on what we get charged by our producers in Athens, the material plus labour cost. Sweatpants are so easy, people understand them without needing to engage further with LIFE SPORT or the ideas we are invested in. It feels good to be part of a more inclusive market.”

I think LIFE SPORT is onto something. Something brilliant. First of all because LIFE SPORT can be seen as an exercise in exploring the role that art can play in a local social context. By locating the production in Athens, LIFE SPORT invests in the local economy while addressing the global forces that have so deeply impacted it.

The other obvious reason why i’m so enthusiastic about LIFE SPORT is that the model allows them to bypass traditional forms of art funding. They remain part of the art world but do not need to rely on traditional (and shrinking) public arts funding or on the dictates of the commercial gallery model.


Stefanos Mandrake, Black on black, 2016. Installation view


LIFE SPORT, with CALM BALM. Photo: Life Sport


LIFE SPORT, with Bonnie. Photo: Life Sport


LIFE SPORT, with Micha. Photo: Life Sport

Somewhere in Between. Contemporary Art Scene in Europe remains open at BOZAR in Brussels until 19 August 2018.

Get Up, Stand Up! Changing the world with posters

If ever you’re in Brussels this summer, don’t miss Get Up, Stand Up – Changing The World With Posters (1968 – 1973) at the MIMA museum. I had never been to the MIMA before. Mostly because i’m lazy and crossing the canal seemed like a Herculean task when i’m in town with only a few hours and a long list of exhibitions to see. Well, that was a stupid excuse! MIMA is a wonderful place to visit. The art space is committed “to a culture that breaks down barriers and reaches out to a broad audience, reflecting the world of today and paving the way for the world of tomorrow.” That’s what most cultural centers claim to do these days but rare are those that fulfill these promises as convincingly as MIMA does. Not only did i see people from all ages and cultural background when i spent a few hours there but each of the visitors seemed to be genuinely excited about the exhibition.


John Sposato, Power to the penis, 1970

MIMA’s programme is relentlessly surprising and attractive. Previous shows have looked at creative vandalism, invasive installations, comic book aesthetic, etc. Anything labelled ‘subcultural’, anything with humour, bite and a resonance with the contemporary finds a home in this ex-Belle-Vue brewery. There’s a reason why MIMA stands for ‘Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art’.


The MIMA museum along the canal. Photos by MIMA


Lambert Studios, War is good business: invest your son, c. 1969


View of the exhibition space. Photos by MIMA

The current exhibition, Get Up, Stand Up, is dedicated to protest posters created between 1968 and 1973. These were six years of civil unrest where people demonstrated against war, racial discrimination, dictatorship, patriarchy, violence towards the environment, etc. Protestors had a powerful and new ally in their fights: screen printing (or serigraphy). The technique was fast, cheap and simple to learn.

The posters that used to be instruments of protest and antagonism have now become objects of aesthetic interest. In spite of that and in spite of being half a century old, the images and slogans have lost nothing of their strength, nor sadly of their relevance. Today we have hashtags and other social media tools but we’re still yearning for equality, freedom and justice.

The 400 posters from 30 countries have been selected by Michaël Lellouche, a film maker and a writer who, over the past few years, has collected more than 1600 posters printed during those 6 eventful years.

Here’s a pick of some of the posters exhibited. You can see more of them on MIMA’s website, i’m also copy/pasting their descriptions (with minor changes and added links):


Anonymous, Break the Dull Steak Habit, also known as “Cattle Queen”, 1968

On the 7th of September 1968 in Atlantic City, a few hours before the election of Miss America, a hundred activists from the New York Radical Women binned various attributes of female submission: mops, false eyelashes, hair curlers, bras or issues of Playboy. They brandished placards in the effigy of historical heroines of feminism such as Lucy Stone or Sojourner Truth and this poster showing the degrading way beauty pageants turned women into little more than prime cuts of meat in “cattle markets”.


Guerrilla Girls, If you’re raped, you might as well “relax and enjoy it,” because no one will believe you, 1992


Free the Panthers

In January 1969, three attempted explosions failed in New York, targeting in particular two police precincts. On the 2nd of April, 21 people were arrested, all members of the Black Panther Party. They were charged with attempted bombing and conspiracy, and their bail was set at 100,000 dollars each. One of those arrested, Afeni Shakur, 24 (pregnant with the future musician Tupac Shakur), decided to defend herself without a lawyer during the eight-month trial. Her remarkable pleadings would mark public opinion. Due to a lack of evidence, all were acquitted in May 1971.


Emory Douglas, Untitled (On the Bones of the Oppressors), 1969

Emory Douglas became the resident artist of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. Appointed Minister of Culture, he created most of the posters and illustrations of the official weekly “The Black Panther”.


Anonymous, Bobby Seale Kidnappé

In August 1968, Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was accused of conspiracy and incitement to riot. At the so-called Chicago Seven trial, having asked to defend himself, he was tied up and gagged in full court before being prosecuted in a separate trial.


Anonymous, Move on Over or We’ll Move on Over You, circa 1967


Anonymous, Indian power, 1971

On the 27th of February 1973, 200 Oglala Sioux Indians and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over the small town of Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reserve, South Dakota. They were protesting against the alleged corrupt management of tribal leader Richard Wilson and the United States government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Native American people. Wounded Knee was chosen for its symbolic significance – it was the site of the massacre of more than 200 Indian civilians by the US military in 1890.

Marlon Brando, who was due to receive an Oscar for The Godfather, had his acceptance speech read out by Sacheen Littlefeather, an apache activist and the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. Brando boycotted the ceremony in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans and to draw attention to the standoff at Wounded Knee. His gesture relaunched media attention on Wounded Knee.


Anonymous, Train Now

In the middle of the U.S. presidential campaign, marked in the spring of 1968 by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, this poster proved to be a hard-hitting and provocative one. The Vietnam War looked set to require more young soldiers. But who is shooting whom?


Anonymous, And Babies?

In October 1969, the Art Workers Coalition (AWC) was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art of New York to create a poster denouncing the war in Vietnam. The AWC decided to use a photograph taken by the army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle after the My Lai Massacre. They then superimposed on the image the confession that Private Paul Meadlo made during an interview when he admitted that yes, babies were killed.

The MoMA refused to distribute the poster, deemed to be too shocking. The AWC printed 50,000 copies and during a blitz operation at the MoMA, on the 26th of December 1969, activists brandished it in front of Picasso’s Guernica, on loan by Spain. The symbol was unmistakeable: the Americans had joined the Nazis in their barbarism.


Yoko Ono and John Lennon, The War Is Over!, 1969

On the 15th of December 1969 New Yorkers discovered in giant letters on Times Square the information: “The war is over!” The small print tempered the good news. In this poster, John Lennon and Yoko Ono incite civil disobedience, encouraging people to be active rather than passive. Translated into several languages, the campaign was displayed in 11 cities around the world.


Dutch poster, by the anarchist environmentalist movement Provo


George Maciunas, U.S.A. Surpasses All the Genocide Records, c.1966

The American flag was also to come under the fire of foreign countries and American artists. George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus Artistic Movement, created a flag denouncing the mass killings perpetrated by the United States. Thousands of copies of the poster went on to be sold with a leaflet listing the most morbid statistics.


Atelier Populaire, La Lutte Continue, 1968


Atelier populaire, La police s’affiche aux Beaux-Arts, 1968

Last poster of the famous Atelier populaire, in response to the police raid in the premises of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts on the 27th of June 1968.


That’s All Folks!

Views of the exhibition space (all photos by MIMA):


Julio Le Parc, Frappez les gradés, 1971

Get Up, Stand Up – Changing The World With Posters (1968 – 1973) is at MIMA in Brussels until 30 September 2018.

Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance

If you happen to be in Belgium this week, don’t miss Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance, a show at BOZAR which makes it clear that technology has left us with nowhere to hide. We knew that already of course. Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations have pulverized any dream of internet as a space for free and uninhibited exchanges.

Watching You Watching Me explores how artists are responding to the world’s transformation into a vast tech-mediated panopticon. Some of the artists reveal the efforts deployed by governments and corporations to monitor our online thoughts and ideas, with no concern for our privacy and freedom of expression. Others make visible the new forms digital self-surveillance and ‘virtual vigilantism’ facilitated by social media and access to webcams across the world.

I feel like i’ve blogged about surveillance/sousveillance hundreds of times already but i was impressed with this show, it is solid, enlightening and should appeal to the wise and the uninformed alike. It closes on Sunday so be quick and visit it if you’re in the area. Here’s a quick overview of the works on show (i only skipped the ones i wrote about in the past):


Julian Roeder, Thermal Imaging Camera, 2012. A portable, long-distance infrared thermal imaging surveillance system used by a Bulgarian Frontex unit


Julian Roeder, Monitoring Zeppelin, 2013. Near Toulon, southern France.
A Wescam MX 15 surveillance camera operator inside a monitoring zeppelin. This photograph was taken during an initial testing phase of a EUROSUR research project aimed to improve control of illegal immigration in the Mediterranean


Julian Roeder, Frequency-Modulated Continuous-Wave Radar and High-Performance Wescam MX 15, near Toulon, southern France. A frequency-modulated continuous-wave radar—used for the detection of small wooden boats—and a high-performance Wescam MX 15 surveillance camera are mounted on a dirigible


Julian Roeder, Polish Frontex Officer, 2012. A Polish Frontex border patrol officer stands with an ICS30 thermal imaging reconnaissance camera near the border between Greece and Turkey. Evros region, northern Greece


Julian Roeder, Border Situation, 2012. Border patrol police monitor the external border of Greece

Julian Roeder’s Mission and Task series exposes the high-tech surveillance apparatus deployed by Europe along its external borders. Thermo-cameras, surveillance drones, satellite technology, radar equipment for hunting down fleeing refugees and migrants add a digital and unforgiving layer to the old barbed wire, walls and fences.

These deterrents and the way they function elude visual representation.

“With my work, I intend to portray a border security system consisting of surveillance infrastructure that ensures the relative affluence of life in Europe,”
Roeder wrote. “I know of many works dedicated to representing the fate of migrants. I wanted, however, to create works that do not focus on “the other” itself, but on the systems and mechanisms used to construct and control “the other.”

In making these images, I was particularly dedicated to showing how technologization turns the handling of migrants into an abstraction. The focal point is a technology that records humans as data, currents, points of light, and as signals—not as individuals. Through an excessive enhancement of the photographic aesthetic, this technology can become a tool and symbol for alienation instead of a responsible means of dealing with people.”


Edu Bayer, Former Gadhafi Intelligence Facilities in Tripoli, Libya. Interior of the main center of Internet Surveillance and Internal Security of the former Gadaffi regime. Computers, files, and electronic devices abandoned in a 6 floor building. August, 2011


Edu Bayer, A room in Libya’s internet surveillance center, Tripoli, Libya, August 30, 2011

Edu Bayer‘s images depicts the physical remains of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s surveillance apparatus.

The internet surveillance center in Tripoli was a six-story building where the government monitored citizens’ movements and correspondence. After the 2011 civil war, the repressive machine was left empty, documents were shredded and the internet traffic monitoring and filtering equipment was abandoned.


Simon Menner, From a Disguise Seminar


Simon Menner, From a Disguise Seminar


Simon Menner, Transmitting Secret Signs

Simon Menner spent two years exploring the archives of the Stasi (East Germany’s Ministry for State Security.) Almost 300,000 people worked for the secret police, per capita far more than were employed by the CIA or the KGB.

After the downfall of the GDR, the Stasi’s operations were laid open to the public and reviewed by the StaSi Records Agency, an office set up specially for this purpose.

The archive images that Menner selected are exhibited un-retouched. They often look funny to the modern eye but the reality they depict is dark: these are real photos of real people who were trained to systematically pry and report on their neighbors and family members. What makes these images unique is that, as Menner explained “the public has very limited access to pictures showing the act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant. We rarely get to see what Big Brother sees”.


Josh Begley, Information of Note (detail), 2014. Composite image and text-based installation featuring photographs and observational notes culled from New York City Police Department (NYPD) Demographics Unit documents

Josh Begley‘s Information of Note is another work that brings to light the Big Brother perspective. The installation consists of text and photographs that were extracted from New York City Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit (later the Zone Assessment Unit). The operation systematically spied on the daily lives of Muslims, mapping and monitoring the communities, where they go to pray, buy veggies or have a coffee.

The unit was disbanded in 2014 after public outcry. Or maybe because snooping on Muslim led to no leads.

By re-contextualizing this material in floor-to-ceiling collages, Begley paints a disturbing picture of the mundane nature of the “evidence” collected.


Mari Bastashevski, It’s Nothing Personal (detail), 2014. Hacking facility at “CyberGym”, an Israeli cyber defense role-playing training facility that provides IT security training to enterprises and government officials


Mock-up illustration of It’s Nothing Personal, 2014. Photographs: Mari Bastashevski. Design: LUST

One of the most interesting works in the show is It’s Nothing Personal, an installation that takes a close look at the booming industry that caters to governments’ demand for surveillance of mass communications. These electronic surveillance companies might operate in a covert world and design products that are meant to be undetectable, but that didn’t prevent them from developing a strong corporate image and language.

Working with the NGO Privacy International, Mari Bastashevski combines her own photographs with trade fair brochures and corporate documentation from the industry. Her installation brings side by side this sanitized corporate aesthetic with testimony from an Uzbek human rights advocate whose life has been affected by the kinds of scrutiny that private surveillance companies enable.

All advertising catalogues from It’s Nothing Personal project are also easy to find, using the instrument ‘search for text files’ on the servers of the companies. All of this information is in open access.


Andrew Hammerand, The New Town (detail), 2013


Andrew Hammerand, The New Town (detail), 2013

Andrew Hammerand’s series The New Town was shot via a web-controllable CCTV installed by the property developer of a community in the American Midwest to monitor and publicize construction progress. Hammerand managed to get online access to the device’s entire control panel, allowing him to remotely operate the camera and subvert its intended purpose in order to make photographs.

The pixelated, blurry photos immediately call out the visual language of surveillance footage and “evidentiary” images often used to stir suspicion. Are these people really honest citizens or are they criminals, missing persons and murder suspects?

The work points to the dangers that the increasing (and often careless) use of domestic surveillance pose to privacy and personal freedom.


Tomas van Houtryve, Baseball practice in Montgomery County, Maryland. According to records obtained from the FAA, which issued 1,428 domestic drone permits between 2007 and early 2013, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Navy have applied for drone authorization in Montgomery County


Tomas van Houtryve, Students are seen in a schoolyard in El Dorado County, California. In 2006, a drone strike on a religious school in the village of Chenegai reportedly killed up to 69 Pakistani children

In October 2012, a drone strike in Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra in her garden. At a U.S. Congressional hearing held a year later in Washington, D.C., the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to lawmakers. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

According to strike reports complied by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Zubair Rehman’s grandmother is one of several thousand people killed by covert U.S. drone strikes since 2004. Although we live in the most media-connected age in history, the public has little visual record of the drone war and its casualties.

Tomas van Houtryve used a drone to shoot photos of weddings, afternoons in public parks, birthday parties and other relaxing moments across America. The photos mirror the ways US drones are being used for targeted killings at Yemeni, Afghan and Pakistani gatherings.

Watching You, Watching Me was curated by Stuart Alexander, Susan Meiselasz, Yukiko Yamagata. The show remains open until 18 February 2018 at BOZAR in Brussels.
Organized by: Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with BOZAR and Privacy Salon

Entrance is free.

Related stories: Exploitation Forensics. Interview with Vladan Joler, Black Diamond. The internet is full of loopholes and leaks, The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum seeking process in Europe, Book review: Top Secret. Images from the Stasi Archives, Big Eye Kabul. Surveillance blimps over Afghanistan, Identity squatting and spy training. A conversation with Simon Farid, The Influencers: Former MI5 spy Annie Machon on why we live in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned, Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 1) and (part 2), Confessions of a Data Broker and other tales of a quantified society, Unauthorized photos of U.S. intelligence officials stencilled on the walls of your city, etc.

The State of Things 2017: experiments in perception


Justin Bennett, Multiplicity, 2017. Photo via Justin Bennett

If you ever find yourself in or around Brussels and are interested in art that explores technology in a meaningful way, then do visit the exhibition The State of Things 2017 at iMal, the center for digital cultures and technology.

The art center has invited Werktank and Overtoon to take over its galleries and present four installations developed by artists who work or have worked in their studios. Overtoon shows ‘Multiplicity’ by Justin Bennett and ‘Polyhedra’ by Floris Vanhoof. Werktank shows ‘The White’ by Kurt d’Haeseleer and Franck Vigroux, as well as ‘Search for the frame’ and two new site specific works by Johannes Langkamp.

Overtoon is based in Brussels and is dedicated to the research and production of sound art. Werktank is based in Leuven and produces installation art that explores the relationship between technology and perception. While the two platforms have different concerns, they both value an experimental and sensory approach to image, light and sound.

I’ve always have a soft spot for sound art so i’ll kick off my walk around the exhibition with the sound installations:


Floris Vanhoof, Polyhedra, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal


Floris Vanhoof, Polyhedra, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal


Floris Vanhoof, Polyhedra, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal

While at Overtoon, Floris Vanhoof created a symphonic orchestra composed of 40 loudspeakers of various geometrical shapes. Because they have different sizes, shapes and spatial placement, each sculpture translates sounds in a specific way. The listening experience takes on an additional visual but also sensorial dimension as you walk around and inside this cloud of speakers and discover how the natural movements in the sounds seem to morph and move from one sculpture to another.


Justin Bennett, Multiplicity, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal


Justin Bennett, Multiplicity, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal


Justin Bennett, Multiplicity (Filters for listening to the city), 2017


Justin Bennett, Multiplicity, 2017

During his residency at Overtoon, Justin Bennett built an array of listening devices -like a miniature microphone inside a trumpet or a wooden stethoscope- to explore the acoustic territories of Brussels. He then went on to uncover and record the voices and narratives of people, the sounds of work environments, of the fauna, of underground tunnels and passageways, etc. The artist manipulated the sounds he encountered, traced out narrative paths across the Belgian capital and explored the visual and spatial forms of the city in drawings and sculptures.

The exhibition detailed Bennett’s research into the sirens of emergency vehicles whose presence in Brussels’ soundscape increases with each terrorist threat or attack. The sound of various types of sirens and signals weaves into the urban fabric as they move through it. Bennett observed how the siren sounds bounce off the large glass facade of office buildings, giving the impression that there are several emergency vehicles instead of just one. And as the vehicle recedes into the distance, its direct noise fades out and leaves more space for its reflections which will, eventually, be covered by more powerful urban sounds.

The first result of Bennett’s research is a multi-trumpet sculptural installation that evokes the distorted and multiplied echoes produced by emergency sirens in urban space.

Kurt d’Haeseleer & Franck Vigroux, The White, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal


Kurt d’Haeseleer & Franck Vigroux, The White, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal


Kurt d’Haeseleer & Franck Vigroux, The White, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal


Kurt d’Haeseleer & Franck Vigroux, The White, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal

Kurt d’Haeseleer & Franck Vigroux‘s audiovisual installation recreates a technique that first appeared as a stage illusion in the mid-19th century. The Pepper’s ghost used a glass plate placed between spectators and the scene to create a ghost apparition on stage. The ghost was in fact an actor kept invisible for the public. In other cases, ghostly objects were made to ‘materialize’ then fade out of existence or to magically transform into different objects. The technique is still used nowadays in theatre, amusement parks, museums, television, and concerts. Teleprompters are a modern implementation of Pepper’s ghost. The technique was also used recently for the appearance of Tupac Shakur onstage with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at the 2012 Coachella Festival and Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.

In ‘The White’, which was produced at Werktank, two white TV screens are reflected. The reflecting glass plate doesn’t show the expect white image but two eerie streams of moving images on each side of the plate.

The installation tries to poke into the dark subconscious part of our mind. It confronts us with both our fear and resistance for what is strange and unknown as our fascination and attraction to it. White, a color associated with positivity and goodness, seems to hide a more troubled and complex reality. The sensorial experience of ‘The White’ is somewhere between ecstasy and fear, like that of a child that hides his eyes from something horrible he sees, but still glimpses through his fingers to see what is happening.


Johannes Langkamp, Search for the frame, 2011-2016


Johannes Langkamp, Pyramid of Vision, 2017. Image courtesy of iMal


Johannes Langkamp, installation view at iMal. Image courtesy of iMal

Johannes Langkamp is fascinated by the way camera operates and the gap between reality and its representation. I think Langkamp’s research would deserves a proper interview. Until this happens, i’ll gaily copy/paste the press blurb: ‘Search for the frame’ is a selection of sixteen video sequences from Langkamp’s archive of video sketches from the past five years. The compilation is a cumulative view of his research in which he is experimenting with the possibilities of the framed look. By playing with the perspective, he shows how the camera can manipulate reality.

The artist also presents two new creations at iMAL, in which he continues his research: the video installation “Pyramid of Vision” and a spatial intervention, inspired by the location.

The State of Things 2017 is at iMal in Brussels until 15 October 2017.

Related stories: Experiments in sound and perception. An interview with Aernoudt Jacobs and Listen to the sounds from the deepest hole ever dug into the Earth crust.

The artist with a super-computing mind

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Sunday’s Crash, 2005

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George Widener, Friday Disasters

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George Widener, Titanic, 2007. Image Henry Boxer Gallery

The Art et Marges museum in Brussels has spent the past 25 years showing the work of “outsider” artists. The ones who are self-taught, or work either in isolation, or in workshops for mentally disabled and psychologically fragile people. Do have a look when you’re in the Belgian capital. It’s a cheerful and friendly place and right now their exhibition is called Save the World. That’s where i rediscovered the work of George Widener.

Like most outsider artists, Widener’s life receives as much scrutiny as his work. He has savant syndrome, a condition in which a person diagnosed as autistic demonstrates prodigious capacities or abilities that surpass by far what is considered normal.

Widener’s super talent is numerical computation. He processes complex arithmetical calculations at great speed and has a prodigious proficiency in calculating dates. He can memorize dates, days and events dating back to 180 A.D. and he can do the same for the upcoming 80.000 years.

His super-calculator power drives him to obsessively compute complex sequences of numbers, extract patterns from dates and scrutinize historical events (he is particularly keen on catastrophes). He turns them into large-scale calendars, mazes and date grids that visualize his idea of how the world is organized.

George Widener. Ricco Maresca Gallery

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George Widener, Doomsday Device, 2013. Image Outsider Art Fair

Out of his analysis of patterns and dates, Widener also attempts to extract informed prophecies about future events. Could patterns of dates of events or phenomena make it possible to predict future plane crashes and other disasters?

This might sound a bit batty but it seems that Widener also applies his arithmetical genius to gambling. I’m going to quote an article from The Guardian: He has learned how to count cards, a system of winning at blackjack by memorising cards and calculating their values. He describes himself as a semi-professional gambler. “I have taken the casinos for thousands of dollars.”

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George Widener, Renewable, 2016. Ricco/Maresca Gallery

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George Widener, King of the World, 2010. Image Outsider Art Fair

Furthermore, Widener’s super computing mind leads him to use his own algorithms to elaborate numerical puzzles and games that only intelligent and independently-thinking machines of the Singularity age will be able to fully enjoy and understand.

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George Widener, Robot Puzzle, 2011

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Untitled (Games for Robots No. 1), 2014

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George Widener, Megalopolis, 2005

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George Widener, No Rain Five Days, 2012

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George Widener, Untitled (Calendrical Geometry 007), 2015. Image artsy

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George Widener, Magic Circle 12-21-2012, 2012

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George Widener, Birthday ma (Weekends), 2012. Image Galerie Zander

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George Widener, I Was Born, 2012. Image Galerie Zander

The exhibition Save the World remains open at Art et Marges in Brussels until 29 January 2017.

Andres Serrano. Uncensored photographs

A few weeks ago i took advantage of a long morning in Brussels to visit Andres Serrano. Uncensored photographs at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts.

Uncensored photographs | Andres Serrano

I’ve always liked the work of Serrano. A lot. It’s outrageous, in your face and enjoyably iconoclastic. Portraits of the Ku Klux Klan leaders, close-up of Trump trying his best to look ‘deep’, plastic crucifix immersed into urine, bondage scenes, decaying corpses at the morgue… Shit. His images would be merely anecdotic if they were not also carefully shot, framed, lit and composed.

The exhibition at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts made me realize that until now i had paid the wrong kind of attention to his work. Blinded by the scandalous aura of the images, i had overlooked the compassionate look at society, the deep concern for humanity that a closer inspection reveals. With his portraits of imperfect individuals, Serrano doesn’t judge, he draws a portrait of our deeply flawed society.

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Andress Serrano, Killed by Four Great Danes, 1992. From the series The Morgue

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Andres Serrano, Blood and Semen V

In an attempt to explain why they chose to present works that caused controversy, criticism and physical attacks, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium wrote:

To show Serrano means to assert our basic values. Against barbarism and intolerance. Against obscurantism and inhumanity.

I wasn’t expecting to like this retrospective so much. Even the audioguide was not boring. Cunningly, the curator asked Serrano to talk directly about his photos. So that’s all you hear in the audioguide: the voice of the photographer telling you about his experiences, how he met the people he worked with, the challenges he encountered, the motivations behind the images. I could have listened to him for hours.

If you can’t make it to Brussels before the show closes (soon! on 21 August!) then check out this very small selection of the works on show. Most of the little texts underneath are quotes taken from Serrano’s descriptions of his work.

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Andres Serrano, Klanswoman Grand Klaliff II, 1990

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Andres Serrano, Klansmen (Knight Hawk Of Georgia of The Invisible Empire IV) 1990 © Andres Serrano, Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels, THE KLAN SERIES

“The fact that i’m not white made it a bigger challenge, as well as the scandal of Piss Christ made me a natural enemy of the Klan. It was a challenge for them to agree to be photographer by somebody who embodied everything the Klan was against. It was difficult and risky too. Some people saw it as a provocation. Perhaps, but these photographs are first of all a confrontation, the desire to look them in the eye and represent them, because i regard the Klan as the outsider and I am an outsider myself. Aside from our antagonism, this similarity interested me.”

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Andres Serrano, Hacked to Death II, 1992. From the series The Morgue

“The Morgue is a place built up around the human body, which is always present. Each photograph works as a portrait, all the stronger because of its singularity. First thing is that I wanted to protect the identity of the people. That’s why they are masked. Using close-up and focusing on details gives their individual qualities more expression. As well as the human being still present, these details symbolize death, sometimes horrible and violent barbaric, sometimes cunning and peaceful.”

Hacked to Death, from the Morgue series, is the portrait of a man killed by his wife. Even though he was stabbed twenty-three times, I was struck by the strong presence of this model, as encapsulated by this wide-open eye staring at the viewer. I felt a sort of threat similar to that of the guns in Objects of Desire. We look at the photograph but it stares back at us. It erects something against us and confronts us. This is an important aspect of my work.”

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Andres Serrano, Infection Pneumonia, 1992. From the series The Morgue

“For me, the body of the model in Infectious Pneumonia is like classical painting. That’s how it appeared to me. I never touched any of the bodies I photographed in the mortuary. The sense of drapery and the timelessness of form striving for ideal perfection find singular resolution through connection, as the title indicates, to death 26 through illness, an internal process that attacked the body itself. The classical ideal is asserted and destroyed by its own built-in obsolescence. Its end is inside it.”

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Andres Serrano, Rat Poison Suicide II, 1992. From the series The Morgue

Talking about Rat Poison Suicide: “In this photograph, the initial perception from a distance presents a sort of eroticism through the lighting, the velvety material and the sensuality of the skin. But it’s a dead body. The eye doesn’t realize this at first and the image tells us something different from what it is. What the title tells us with the objectivity of the cause of death. Sometimes painful, as in the case of these children, who seem to be asleep and who died of pneumonia or meningitis.”

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Andres Serrano, Colt D.A. 45, 1992, from the series Objects of Desire

“The title of this series comes from the Buñuel film That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). I’m a big fan of his work. Having to work in New Orleans, I focused on the weapons that circulate there freely and everything a hand gun can mean as a psychic substitute. There I met gun collectors − men, never women − who treat these weapons like works of art, who respect them, admire them and covet them. The guns I photographed were all loaded. The desire was also a threat. I like the idea of looking death in the eye, of facing danger.”

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Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987 © Andres Serrano, Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels, IMMERSIONS SERIES

“As a Catholic, i was brought up in the love of Christ, where divinity and humanity, ideal and sacrifice, purity and poverty are mixed. And so it seemed natural to me to immerse a crucifix in urine and call it Piss Christ. This photograph isn’t sacrilegious or blasphemous for me.

Crucifixion is a terrible torture, an act of cruelty that is always present. This small object that is so familiar to us, that we pray and touch with love, do we still see the horror it represents. My Piss Christ is a Christian work, a devotional work in the most traditional sense.”

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Andres Serrano, Black Supper, 1990

“Taken in 1990, Black Supper is the last of the Immersions. I had arrived at the end of a road and I hesitated over this subject. Unlike the other Immersions, I used water. Bubbles formed accidentally, making it hard to see the subject. They give the polyptych this unreal, fairytale effect. These five photographs are not one image cut up but five different, separate shots that can form a bigger whole.”

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Andres Serrano, Roberts & Luca vandalized

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The History of Sex. View of the exhibition space in Brussels

A room separated by heavy black curtains from the main galleries shows works form the series History of Sex. Some of them had been vandalized in 2007 in Lund (Sweden) by a group of masked neo-Nazi. The attack was part of a campaign to protest against decadence and “degenerate art”, a term used by the Nazi regime in the 1930 to condemn virtually all modern art.

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Andres Serrano, Fool’s Mask IV,Hever Castle, England (from the series Torture), 2015

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Andres Serrano, XXVI-1, 2015. © Andres Serrano, Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels, Torture series

“When I did the Torture series, my latest, I had a very strange feeling because I had to act as the torturer and at the same time empathise with the victim. Again, there is the duality: suffering and violence, sacrifice and inhumanity, the torturer and the tortured. The objects all are real and authentic, used to inflict cruelty through history. I found them all over Europe and they remind us of what human beings can do to other human beings. In a sense it is like the other side of Piss Christ, the side of violence and cruelty. With regard to the subjects, some bear direct testimony and others are actors taking part in a tableau vivant.”

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Andres Serrano, Kevin Hannaway. From the series ‘The Hooded Men’

Part of a series of photos showing 4 hooded men. Behind the hoods are real members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) arrested by the British police in the 1970s and held in isolation, hooded all the time. The ordeal lasted years for some of them. Serrano met 4 of these men and asked if he could photograph them in the hoods. Now old, they agreed because the hoods have become an inseparable part of their martyrdom despite the years.

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Andres Serrano, Ahmed Osoble, 2015. From the Denizens of Brussels series

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts sent Serrano in the streets of Brussels and he came back with Denizens of Brussels, a very moving series portraying people living and sleeping in the streets of the capital.

Andres Serrano, Denizens of Brussels

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Andres Serrano, The Other Christ, 2001

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Andres Serrano, Lucas Suarez, Homeless, 2002. From the series America

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Andres Serrano, Cross

Andres Serrano. Uncensored photographs is at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels until 21 August 2016.

Different Ways to Infinity and other artefacts of science fiction

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Different Ways to Infinity

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Different Ways to Infinity

Félix Luque Sánchez is one of those rare artists who quietly follows his own creative inquiry and vision, seemingly oblivious to trends and conventions. That’s probably what makes his work so singular and timeless.

Luque Sánchez uses matter and technology to seduce, puzzle and inspire viewers. His art installations, which double as science fiction works, materialize scientific concepts and theories that might seem arcane to most people: artificial intelligence, chaos theory, infinity.

I’ve discovered one of his latest artworks a couple of month ago at the KIKK festival in Namur (Belgium.) As usual, his pieces pulled me in because of their enigmatic elegance and sobriety but they also left me with more questions than i had bargained for.

Different Ways to Infinity, the work exhibited at the festival, is staged as a collection of instruments from an imaginary scientific laboratory.

First, two big, inverted pendulums attempt to fight gravity and achieve perfect balance. The system emulates human behaviors in order to reach an equilibrium that seems to elude them.

Another element of the installation is a synthesizer based on Chua’s circuit, one of the first physical demonstrations of chaos existence and of its behaviour. Each time chaos is reached, butterfly-like shapes known as Lorentz attractors appear on the oscilloscopes connected to the synthesizer.

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Different Ways to Infinity

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Different Ways to Infinity

The work also features large digital prints and 3D animations. Generated by software simulating experiments in computational fluid dynamics, they visulize the chaotic elements that can be found in nature.

Finally, ten rhombic dodecahedrons express complex reactive behaviours through light and can be combined together in potentially infinite geometrical arrangements.

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Different Ways to Infinity

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Different Ways to Infinity

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Different Ways to Infinity

I caught up with the artist over emails to talk about complexity, abstraction and personal landscapes:

Hi Félix! I saw Different Ways to Infinity at the KIKK festival in Namur and found the work thought-provoking but it is also visually seducing. Do you think it is possible for a viewer to engage with the pieces without caring much about infinity and any scientific concept explored in the work?

Well that was pretty much the challenge, to make a series of artworks that explores the metaphysical aspects of science through a perceptual approach.

I wanted to generate a fiction where scientific theories are not presented for the knowledge they produce, but as human memories and therefor materialized in artifacts.
This process generates, I hope, a perceptual experience where scientific experiments meet a non recognized collective memory, abstraction and contemplation.

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Different Ways to Infinity

Different Ways to Infinity

There seem to be an element of science fiction throughout your work. What is it about SciFi that interests you? Is it the speculation on the future? The way it engages with issues that surround science and ‘progress’? Or are you more inspired by some specific works from literature and cinema?

The speculation of the future is essential to question our relationship to science and technology, which are under the dogma of progress.

For me SF is a perfect artistic frame to work with technology. They have always coexisted in a very close relationship, influencing each other frequently.

What can a conceptual approach to science, like yours, bring to the way people understand science?

I see science as a way to comprehend or perceive the complexity of the world, instead of an objective knowledge to apply to the economic and useful world of humans. An artistic approach to science should bring the vision of the complexity and the non-tangible. The idea of science as an exploration tool, rather than a production tool.

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Nihil Ex Nihilo

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Nihil Ex Nihilo

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Nihil Ex Nihilo

How do you think your work has evolved since it started meeting with success (back in 2009 with The Discovery if i remember correctly)?

I think that my working process is still quite basic in a way. I just look into ways of translating the real into a fictional dimension: Chapter I plays with the narrative codes of popular SF. Nihil Ex Nihilo takes an actual communication technology (Network & emails) and projects it to a SF far-near future. D.W.I brings real science to a fictional and perceptive level. Memory Lane uses scanning technology to digitalize our environment, creating a new way of visualizing matter and creating memories.

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Memory Lane

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Memory Lane

Memory Lane

Your latest work, Memory Lane was developed together with Iñigo Bilbao. It pays homage to places in Asturias which have shaped your ‘childhood and youth memories.’ What has the process to work on Memory Lane brought to the way you engage with these locations and the memories linked to it? Has it had any effect? Enabled you to see it under another light for example? Or discover elements you didn’t suspect?

Memory Lane is our tribute to our childhood and adolescence in Asturias. I emigrated to Belgium when I was a kid. When I go back it’s for holidays and we always meet. It’s a time for us where we have no worries and plenty of time to explore the land and the sea. I feel I have a deeper relationship to the land there than anywhere else.

We wanted to approach these personal landscapes with a set of technological tools, a kind of techno-safari. We focus on capturing its complexity by pushing the scanning technology to its maximum. We wanted the machine to expresses her-self; we chose the most chaotic and complex textures that have always amazed us from these lands.

We are very happy with the result. The machine has generated a cinematography that is unique. You can’t get more data of a landscape, but at the same time is not a human vision, it’s a machine vision. And as such is difficult for humans to recognize the locations, even for locals.

What i like about the work (apart from the fact that it engages with an area of Spain that i like so much) is that it doesn’t play with the ‘vintage’ aspect of memories. It doesn’t feel nostalgic and stuck in the past. Since most of us don’t have any childhood memories linked to Asturias, what do you think we can get from this work?

The aesthetics of the work are in great part due to the technology we used.
We rent a 3D laser scanner that is mainly used in topography. One scan have a range up to 330m. We combine several scans per scene. The result is 3D environments as a point cloud representation (The machine scans up to 976.000 points per second). It means that the geometries, the shapes, are recreated by millions of points distributed in the space. The subsequent images are extremely neutral, they have no basic attributes, light is not captured, nor color or depth of field.
But because of these lacks, they are unique; they have their own atmosphere, a representation of reality without sentiments. It’s the vision of a machine.

We think that this is why the specific locations becomes fictional and in a way universal.

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Memory Lane

Could you talk about the installation setting? What is the rock, the structure that holds it, the screens all around? Why did you decide to show the piece like this way? Pau Waelder wrote a beautiful text about it (as he always does!) but i was hoping you could somehow condense it a bit?

Yes, Pau wrote a great text about the work. Basically the installation set-up is made out of a machine (custom-made cnc), that moves in space a fake rock in levitation. This replica is made from a precise 3D scan of a rock from a beach from Asturias. The idea was to displace it from its real location to an exhibition space and to make a fictional character out of it.
In the back of the machine diptych HD video display shows a 20 minutes film made from 3d animations of the landscapes we scanned. Basically coast sites we are connected to and the forest in the back of Iñigo’s house.

You are going to have a solo show at iMAL in April i think. Do you already know what we can expect to see there?

The exhibition will be about Memory Lane. It will show the main installation I just described with additional artworks like digital prints, 3D printed sculptures and a light sculpture. All connected with the landscapes we scanned and presence during our journeys in Asturias last year.

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

Memory Lane will also been shown in Paris in March at La Villette during the first edition of the 100% festival.

And the next project we are working on is another collaboration with Iñigo and is related to cars.

Thanks Felix!

Memory Lane, opens at iMal, Brussels on 20 April and will run until 22 May 2016.

Previously: Nihil Ex Nihilo and Chapter 1, the Discovery.

Urban bee activism

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Living 3D printers. Bees at work in the Brussels Urban Bee Lab

A third of the food we eat depends on pollinators -especially bees- for a successful harvest. Which means that the decline of bees and other pollinating insects observed in most industrialized countries is threatening to compromise biodiversity and agricultural yields.

Media artist and beekeeper Annemarie Maes is the founding director of the Brussels Urban Bee Lab and one of the co-founders of the artist collective OKNO. She has been monitoring and working with urban bee colonies since 2009, not only to develop novel art works but also to better understand the connections between city honeybees and urban ecosystems, to raise awareness among citizens about the plight of the pollinating bees and to call for ecological activism.

Maes was in Riga last week to talk about her work at the Renewable Futures conference which was part of the RIXC's new art and science festival.

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The Urban Artfarm consists of an edible forest garden, an apiary and a vegetable garden run by a local community. The project is self sufficient in terms of rainwater and solar energy for powering the sensors. Photo: Annemie Maes

Her bees can be found on the Urban Farm that she built on the rooftop of a parking lot in the historical center of Brussels.

The farm functions as an open-air laboratory where artists and urban gardeners experiment with strategies for sustainable living in the city and investigates questions such as: How does a rooftop ecosystem deal with energy, water, soil and green technology? How do plants and city honeybees interact with this artificial ecosystem and more generally with the urban environment?

One of Maes' bee projects is The Sound Beehive experiment which literally listens to the sound made by the bees in order to monitor the development of the beehives and examine their relationships with their environment.

As bio indicators, honeybees provide us with a constant stream of information on the environment (urban, countryside) on which they forage (activity, pollen, nectar). Diseases like colony collapse disorder and environmental problems like the use of pesticides could be analysed in a different way by monitoring and analysing the daily activity (audio, video) of several bee colonies over multiple years.

Two of her beehives are equipped with non-intrusive, off the shelf-technology (microphones, temperature and humidity sensors, IR cameras, etc.) that monitors bee interactions with their immediate environment as well as the activity inside the beehives. The huge amount of data is streamed online, collected and them analyzed in collaboration with scientists from the Brussels Free University who use pattern recognition programs in order to identify relationships between the biotope and the behaviors and health of the colony.

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The Sound Beehive, detail. Photo via ALOTOF

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Streaming set up of the sound beehives, with the Raspberry camera and computer. Photo via ALOTOF

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A piezo microphone mounted on a frame. The bees build wax around it. Photo via ALOTOF

Everything is set up from an artistic point of view which means, as Maes explained with a smile, 'very little money, lots of DIY and affordable technology (arduino, Rapsberry Pi, etc) and lots of learning through trials and errors.'

The monitoring doesn't stop there. Maes and her team also collect the pollen that the bees bring back, they magnify the images of the pollen, identify from which plants they come and build up a database which enables them to determine the geographical locations of the plants the bees visited and to draw 'green corridors' through the city, helping the insects to expand their foraging fields.

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The pollen the bees bring back from their foraging flights are analyzed with the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Above a Cucurbita pepa pollen grain (zucchini) magnified 1150x. Photo: Annemie Maes

Another of Maes' experimental bee projects is The Transparent Beehive, a living sculpture built like a book. The design was inspired by Swiss entomologist Francis Huber's Leaf Hive (1789) which featured a fully movable frame hive that enabled the scientist to study the evolution of a bee colony. Each page consists of a wooden frame where bees can build honeycomb structures.

Just like the Sound Beehive, the Transparent Beehive is equipped with microphones, sensors cameras that monitor the colony's buzz, the growth of the wax structures, the activity of bees as well as various microclimate data. The sensors also make it possible to monitor the beehive from a distance and unobtrusively. In consequence, the hives do not need to be opened and the bees activity remains undisturbed.

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Transparent Beehive (the laboratory), 2012

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Transformative Ecologies at Mons-2015: audio installations with beehive recordings. Photo Annemie Maes

Much of AnneMarie Maes' work is presented and explained in detail in the book Ignorance, A Laboratory On The Open Fields.

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Photos of the book by MER. Paper Kunsthalle

The aim of the European project ALOTOF A Laboratory on the Open Field was to make ecological media art in a natural environment instead of the more traditional (but artificial) setting of a gallery or museum space. The publication documents the work of artists who made artworks that range from site specific sound installations to wooden bike mobiles, ephemeral outdoor restaurants, machines that would make hunted animals run away and nomadic workshop.

Urban bee activism

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Living 3D printers. Bees at work in the Brussels Urban Bee Lab

A third of the food we eat depends on pollinators -especially bees- for a successful harvest. Which means that the decline of bees and other pollinating insects observed in most industrialized countries is threatening to compromise biodiversity and agricultural yields.

Media artist and beekeeper Annemarie Maes is the founding director of the Brussels Urban Bee Lab and one of the co-founders of the artist collective OKNO. She has been monitoring and working with urban bee colonies since 2009, not only to develop novel art works but also to better understand the connections between city honeybees and urban ecosystems, to raise awareness among citizens about the plight of the pollinating bees and to call for ecological activism.

Maes was in Riga last week to talk about her work at the Renewable Futures conference which was part of the RIXC’s new art and science festival.

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The Urban Artfarm consists of an edible forest garden, an apiary and a vegetable garden run by a local community. The project is self sufficient in terms of rainwater and solar energy for powering the sensors. Photo: Annemie Maes

Her bees can be found on the Urban Farm that she built on the rooftop of a parking lot in the historical center of Brussels.

The farm functions as an open-air laboratory where artists and urban gardeners experiment with strategies for sustainable living in the city and investigates questions such as: How does a rooftop ecosystem deal with energy, water, soil and green technology? How do plants and city honeybees interact with this artificial ecosystem and more generally with the urban environment?

One of Maes’ bee projects is The Sound Beehive experiment which literally listens to the sound made by the bees in order to monitor the development of the beehives and examine their relationships with their environment.

As bio indicators, honeybees provide us with a constant stream of information on the environment (urban, countryside) on which they forage (activity, pollen, nectar). Diseases like colony collapse disorder and environmental problems like the use of pesticides could be analysed in a different way by monitoring and analysing the daily activity (audio, video) of several bee colonies over multiple years.

Two of her beehives are equipped with non-intrusive, off the shelf-technology (microphones, temperature and humidity sensors, IR cameras, etc.) that monitors bee interactions with their immediate environment as well as the activity inside the beehives. The huge amount of data is streamed online, collected and them analyzed in collaboration with scientists from the Brussels Free University who use pattern recognition programs in order to identify relationships between the biotope and the behaviors and health of the colony.

-Beehives_2-full.jpg

The Sound Beehive, detail. Photo via ALOTOF

0DSCF2634.jpg

Streaming set up of the sound beehives, with the Raspberry camera and computer. Photo via ALOTOF

0a800px-Piezo_3-full.jpg

A piezo microphone mounted on a frame. The bees build wax around it. Photo via ALOTOF

Everything is set up from an artistic point of view which means, as Maes explained with a smile, ‘very little money, lots of DIY and affordable technology (arduino, Rapsberry Pi, etc) and lots of learning through trials and errors.’

The monitoring doesn’t stop there. Maes and her team also collect the pollen that the bees bring back, they magnify the images of the pollen, identify from which plants they come and build up a database which enables them to determine the geographical locations of the plants the bees visited and to draw ‘green corridors’ through the city, helping the insects to expand their foraging fields.

0courgettePollen-poster2.jpg

The pollen the bees bring back from their foraging flights are analyzed with the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Above a Cucurbita pepa pollen grain (zucchini) magnified 1150x. Photo: Annemie Maes

Another of Maes’ experimental bee projects is The Transparent Beehive, a living sculpture built like a book. The design was inspired by Swiss entomologist Francis Huber‘s Leaf Hive (1789) which featured a fully movable frame hive that enabled the scientist to study the evolution of a bee colony. Each page consists of a wooden frame where bees can build honeycomb structures.

Just like the Sound Beehive, the Transparent Beehive is equipped with microphones, sensors cameras that monitor the colony’s buzz, the growth of the wax structures, the activity of bees as well as various microclimate data. The sensors also make it possible to monitor the beehive from a distance and unobtrusively. In consequence, the hives do not need to be opened and the bees activity remains undisturbed.

0itranspbeehvthelab123125.jpg

Transparent Beehive (the laboratory), 2012

0IcafeeuropaMG_7587.jpg
0cafeuropaMG_7564.jpg
0DtransformabeehiverecoSC_1152.jpg

Transformative Ecologies at Mons-2015: audio installations with beehive recordings. Photo Annemie Maes

Much of AnneMarie Maes’ work is presented and explained in detail in the book Ignorance, A Laboratory On The Open Fields.

0pbookbmah1.jpg
0pinsidec1lpd4.jpg

Photos of the book by MER. Paper Kunsthalle

The aim of the European project ALOTOF A Laboratory on the Open Field was to make ecological media art in a natural environment instead of the more traditional (but artificial) setting of a gallery or museum space. The publication documents the work of artists who made artworks that range from site specific sound installations to wooden bike mobiles, ephemeral outdoor restaurants, machines that would make hunted animals run away and nomadic workshop.