The DocLab Interactive Conference closed at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam on Sunday 19th of November. An integral part of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), DocLab looks at how contemporary artists, designers, filmmakers and other creators use technology to devise and pioneer new forms of documentary storytelling. There’s an exhibition, an immersive network summit, screenings, performances and a conference. The conference is my favourite. Digital pioneers share with the audience their latest experiments and boldest visions of the future. Each year, the same thing happens: the talks start at 10 in the morning, i blink and it’s already 6pm. Their picnic bag is a monstrosity for anyone who’s into eating healthy (more about food later) but that’s just about the only negative thing i can say about the event.
Here are the notes i wrote down during the talks. They are not exhaustive, they only aim to highlight a few ideas and projects i found particularly thought-provoking:
Brett Gaylor is the project lead for Mozilla’s Web Made Movies project. Before working with Mozilla, Brett directed the award wining documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto (2008), an open source documentary investigating remix culture and copyright in the digital age. Two years ago, he authored Do not Track: an online, interactive documentary series about who’s watching you and who’s profiting from your private data.
In his brief and lively presentation, Gaylor talked about the Internet of Shit and the connected salt shakers, forks and other ‘smart objects’ that are actually stupid, insecure and easily hackable. He also showed us an extract of Our Friends Electric, a short film by Superflux and Mozilla which imagines life in the company of an AI virtual assistant that has its own personality.
But if there’s one link you should click on in this pre-Christmas silly period, it’s this one: privacy not included, a guide for shopping connected gadgets that respect your online privacy and security.
Memo Akten is a computational artist interested in tools that enable people to express themselves. His work also looks at the tensions between nature, science, technology, ethics, ritual, tradition and religion.
Akten will i’m sure go down in media art history as a brilliant researcher into AI but also as the guy who told us about Australian beetles mating habits. The males of the Julodimorpha bakewelli species like to couple with big, brown-orangey conquests covered in dimples. Which leads them to copulate with discarded brown beer bottles. The behaviour nearly wiped out the whole species until the beer company decided to change the bottle design and save them from extinction.
Humans are not necessarily always more perceptive than beetles. We also project meaning into what we see and Akten’s work explores how this translates when it comes to algorithms and how the way we use AI actually uncovers our own human biases.
He also made a couple of valid points about the rise of AI and the explosion of big data. The artist believes that AI has been around for years but we need it now more than before to make sense of big data. A second reason for this new interest in AI is that the very organizations that push it are the ones that rely the most on big data to make profits.
The stand-out talk for me was Bogomir Doringer‘s. The artist and curator contemporary investigates collective and individual dynamics. He introduced us to two of his ongoing areas of research.
The first one is FACELESS which started in 2005, turned into an exhibition at q21 MuseumsQuartier Vienna in 2012 and has now taken the form of a book that should be published next year. FACELESS looks at the topic of hidden faces in society in relationship to the surveillance technologies deployed by government after 9/11. He showed us dozens of examples that demonstrate how widespread hidden and masked faces have become in the media, in the creative arts and in pop culture. From David Bowie album cover to Raf Simons putting balaclavas on the runway in 2012. From Adam Harvey to public protests where people wear masks to express that they are one body. From Burqa fetish to Jill Magid’s performance with CCTV in Liverpool.
The second research Doringer presented is I Dance Alone, a work in progress anchored in the artist’s experience of partying in the club Industria in Belgrade during the 1999 Nato bombings. To mock death or simply to try and forget about it. I Dance Alone places cameras above and on the dance floor in order to understand the rituals taking place when people dance. One of these rituals has urgency. The other is all about entertainment. I found the ‘urgency’ side of the research fascinating. Aside from the Industria nightclub, the artist also mentioned Bassiani, a nightclub in Tbilisi, Georgia. One important dimension of Bassiani is its social activism and in particular the way it encourages clubbers to join street protests, influence drug policy and tolerance towards the LGBTQ community in the country.
Lauren McCarthy performance as part of Doclab. Photo Nichon Glerum
Lauren McCarthy discussed her attempts to become a human version of Alexa. The performance involves having access to all the software that runs your house and installing all kinds of gadgets in your home. Once everything’s in place you can ask her anything. From the weather forecast to an honest opinion about your new outfit.
This edition of IDFA was particularly satisfying for anyone interested in digital creativity because for the first time ever, the guest of honour of the festival was a digital pioneer. Jonathan Harris is an artist, a computer scientist and someone who’s generally concerned with bringing more compassion and human warmth to digital technology.
Harris has gained fame for works that include the interactive I Love Your Work (a portrait of nine women who make lesbian porn), We Feel Fine (a touching visualization of human feelings), The Whale Hunt (a 9 day journey with the Inupiat Eskimos), etc. For the DocLab conference, Harris focused on Cowbird, a website he conceived as a library of life experiences “filled with small moments of human connection.” A kind of instagram but more thoughtful, less complacent and launched years before instagram.
With her visually powerful and socially-engaged work at Scatter, Yasmin Elayat is trying to open up the storytelling and production process to the audience. One way to do that is by sharing the tools that Scatter builds. Their depthkit, for example, aims to put volumetric filmmaking into the hands of everyone.
She also briefly presented the very promising Racial Terror Project (working title) which uses VR to time-travels to sites where Claude Neal was dragged and lynched by a mob of white men in 1934 Florida. The project aims to be a ‘magical realist documentary’ that would reclaim the sites where violence took place and contextualize them.
Micha Wertheim is a stand-up comedian, writer and satirist. Last year, Wertheim performed an experiment that made theatre history: he never appeared on stage during his performance. Instead, he used a robot, a printer, a stereo and a set of headphones to coax an unaware audience to perform the whole show in his absence. I hope the video of his presentation will be published at some point. It was hilarious and frankly genius.
The panel with Francesca Panetta, the Guardian executive editor for VR, Oscar Raby, Creative Director at virtual Reality studio VRTOV, and filmmaker Zhao Qi managed to pack many ideas and reflections in 20 minutes or so. I learnt that:
– The Guardian has its own VR studio and they’ve made 8 VR pieces so far. They recently gave out 100 000 google cardboard goggles.
– Women in VR face much gender discrimination.
– There are some 5000 VR cinema and arcades in China, making it easier for VR creators to reach audiences.
– Research has shown that if someone reads an article, there is 1% chance that that person will look for more information about that topic. But there’s 25% chance if they experience that same topic via VR.
– In case you’re wondering about the graphic screened behind the panelists on the photo above, it’s the hype cycle which represents “the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies.”
Emilie Baltz creates musical licking performances and other food design extravaganzas. For DocLab, she collaborated with chef Matthias Van Der Nagel and Klasien V.D. Zandschulp to make us literally cook using a mobile phone, a box containing ingredients with strange textures and spiritual encouragement from Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The result was called Amuse Telebouche.
Jessica Brillhart and Jason Kottke sat down on stage to ponder upon the question: The internet is on fire. What would you save? The selection included two of my favourite: Wikipedia and David OReilly’s Octocat.
Publisher Melville Housewrites: The production of culture was once the domain of artists, but beginning in the early 1900s, the emerging fields of public relations, advertising, and marketing transformed the way the powerful communicate with the rest of us. A century later, the tools are more sophisticated than ever, the onslaught more relentless.
In Culture as Weapon, acclaimed curator and critic Nato Thompson reveals how institutions use art and culture to ensure profits and constrain dissent — and shows us that there are alternatives. An eye-opening account of the way advertising, media, and politics work today, Culture as Weapon offers a radically new way of looking at our world.
From the Guggenheim Bilbao becoming the ultimate icon of urban revitalization to the Nazi Party stadium rallies throwing people into massive nationalist hysteria with their powerful speeches, Wagnerian music and what architect Albert Speer called cathedrals of light. From the Taco Bell Chihuahua dressed to evoke Che Guevara to the independent slogan “Keep Austin Weird” hijacked and copyrighted to serve a branding campaign for the capital of Texas. From corporate-driven bohemia in Berlin and Portland’s hippest neighbourhoods to rock stars wearing Reebok trainers while performing on behalf of Amnesty International. From Apple Store abolishing cash registers (that crude reminder of commerce!) and filling its aseptic spaces with with smiling people dispensing free advice to the McDonald’s Corporation supporting programs that improve the well-being of children while getting people addicted on its cheap, GMO-laden junks food served by under paid employees, etc. Culture, it seems, is intimately weaved into capitalism and politics. And vice versa.
The cathedral of light above the Zeppelintribune, Nuremberg, 1936. Photo: Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst – Zentralbild (Bild 183)
Using historical and contemporary examples gleaned from political campaigns, PR stunts, philanthropy, advertising or interior design, Nato Thompson efficiently demonstrates how culture can be turned into a set of tools and tactics that allows those in power to quietly manipulate the impressionable, irrational and social creature that we are.
Thompson wrote this book as a b-side of the exhibition Living as Form, as a kind of guide to how socially engaged artistic practices can be appropriated by PR companies, advertisers, politicians, corporations and other entities with only their own best interests in mind. They too understand the power of the visual, the importance of arousing emotions, of creating social connections, of devising more radical modes of communication, production and distribution.
Willie Horton political ad ran in 1988 before the presidential election
Some of the tricks deployed by businesses or politicians used to be revolutionary but seem almost banal nowadays. Paying women to smoke in public as an act of freedom in defiance of the taboo of women smoking, for example. Others appear as dirty as ever decades later, such as the infamous Horton ad which suggested that presidential candidate Michael Dukakis bore some responsibility in crimes committed by a murderer temporarily released from prison.
Thompson’s book is informative and entertaining. It is also troubling, thought-provoking and impossible to read without thinking about Trump (or Brexit, or anyone in Europe thinking time has come to make their country ‘great again’.) Especially when it shows how fear has become one of the main drivers of America mainstream culture. Fear permeates the news, is intensified through sensationalist discourses and images but most of all, it feeds millions of men to the notoriously voracious industrial prison complex, keeps Guantanamo Bay in perpetual and unjustified limbo and can turn anyone into a potential, innocent victim: Steve Kurtz, black teenagers, people who have names that don’t sound ‘right’, etc.
Somehow, there is also hope in this book. Humans might be irrational and fairly easy to maneuver but they are also capable of seeing through the smoke screen. They fight back. They use capitalism to overtake capitalism. They hijack media and write their own history of alternative media. They orchestrate civil disobedience with humour and brio. They can even re-purpose fear. To paraphrase Thompson they learn from power even if they do not agree with it.
I sometimes had the feeling that the author is more comfortable writing about some topics than others. He is moving when writing about Reverend Billy and more factual when detailing the military’s cultural approaches to counterinsurgency, for example. But that’s just a detail – that and the fact that there is absolutely zero photo in the book- because Culture as Weapon splendidly condenses into some 300-ish pages the many reasons why culture is exciting, liberating, deceiving and dangerous. Depending on who gets to pull its strings.
I had already loved the catalogue of the exhibition RAVE. Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture and i was curious to see how the show compared to the publication. It was magnificent and invigorating. I stayed there for hours and i will probably run and see any show that curator Nav Haq organizes in the future.
I thought that a review of the exhibition might sound too much like a tiresome revival of my review of the catalogue RAVE. Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture. So instead of my usual super lengthy art reports, i’ll just fill this post with lots of images from the show. Some are mine (the ones that lack any proper credit.) Most of the others are photos from M HKA, they show the preparation of the exhibition, the opening and the final installation views. There might be a couple of comments here and there because i just can’t shut up:
I’m not sure it had anything to do with the show but there was this giant potato frie raving right in front of the museum. Because we’re in Belgium, that’s why!
Piece of the dancefloor from The Haçienda
M HKA had the super smart idea to hand out little booklets titled A Glossary of Rave. The publication guided the visitor through some of the key places, phenomena, style and characteristics of the rave culture: Bocaccio Life (a nightclub in a small Belgian town), Copyright and how music publishing industries tried to crack down on the use of sampling, Acid House, New Beat, New Order, Relational Aesthetics, etc. The terms were also embodied by objects scattered around the show. The first one i spotted in the exhibition rooms was this piece of the dancefloor from The Haçienda, a famous nightclub in Manchester.
Walter Van Beirendonck, Hard Beat collection, 1989-1990. Preparation of the ENERGY FLASH exhibition. Photo M HKA
Walter Van Beirendonck, Hard Beat collection, 1989-1990.
Walter Van Beirendonck, Hard Beat collection, 1989-1990.
K Foundation, Abandon All Art Now, published in Guardian weekend, 31 July 1993
The K Foundation was an art foundation set up by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty from famous Dance/Techno band The KLF. Between 1993 and 1995, they spent the money they had earned from the music industry by a series of actions that subverted the art world. Their most famous performance consisted in burning a million pounds in cash.
News article warning readers about the evils of ecstasy. Exhibition view at M HKA
Matt Stokes, Real Arcadia, 2003-ongoing. Exhibition view at M HKA
Matt Stokes, Real Arcadia, 2003-ongoing. Exhibition view at M HKA
Real Arcadia documents a series of illegal “cave raves” that took place in a rural region of North West England during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The installation includes a clip from a local television news reporting on the wrongful deeds of the young party goers.
Opening of the exhibition. Photo: Bram Goots for M HKA
Daniel Pflumm, Elektro, 1992. Exhibition view at M HKA
Daniel Pflumm, an artist, musician and club promoter, founded the legendary Elektro club in Berlin. He re-contextualizes corporate logos and reduces them to graphic images that no longer fulfill their original marketing function.
Matt Stokes, MASS. Exhibition view at M HKA
Jeremy Deller, Acid Brass, 1997. Photo Jeremy Deller
I’ll never get tired of this:
Acid Brass, What Time Is Love. Performance by the Williams Fairey Band at James Lavelle’s Meltdown
A few euros to get another fabric bag to add to my collection of totes designed by Jeremy Deller. RESULT!
Energy Flash: The Rave Movement, Installation View. Photo M HKA
Rineke Dijkstra. Energy Flash: The Rave Movement. Installation View. Photo: M HKA
Rineke Dijkstra, Buzz Club / Mysteryworld, 1997. Photo: Paul Koenen
Rineke Dijkstra, Buzz Club / Mysteryworld, 1997 (via)
In 1997, Rineke Dijkstra made a series of one-minute videos in two night clubs, one in Liverpool, the other in Zaandam, The Netherlands. She asked clubbers to perform as they wished in front of the camera. Most of them dance and either look embarrassed or like they are trying not to look embarrassed.
I found the videos very moving. At first, i laughed out loud then i felt some sympathy and tenderness towards them. Teenagers! So awkward, so sweet!
Dan Halter, Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave), 2005, Courtesy the artist
Dan Halter, Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave), 2005
Rozalla’s hit single “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” was released in 1991. Dan Halter writes: It was amazing to have a Zimbabwean song topping the international music charts. This was at the height of the rave scene and Rozalla became known as ‘The Queen of Rave’. This was also at a time when protests in South Africa were boiling over. In Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave) I combine some of these elements and also later events such as my experience of attending large public raves in Europe and later in Zimbabwe. The video expresses a personal reality and also the cultural gap between white and black that I was experiencing. These were two fundamentally different scenarios, yet each was guided by crowd psychology and longing for a different reality.
Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, Terminator, 1997. Opening of the exhibition. Photo: Bram Goots for M HKA
Energy Flash: The Rave Movement, Installation View. Photo M HKA
Joël Vacheron is a writer, a cultural theorist and a lecturer in visual communication at ECAL in Lausanne. Nicolas Nova is a futurologist, an ethnographer of digital practices, a teacher at HEAD in Geneva, and one of the founders of the Near Future Laboratory. They’ve teamed up to write a book about the role of algorithms in cultural production, and the hybridization of cultural forms produced by digital technologies.
There was a time when we could fool ourselves and think that robots would only steal the jobs of people working in assembly lines. Now the robots, the bots, the algorithms are writing sport reports, trading on financial markets or bidding for us on eBay. They are faster than us and, crucially, they are getting better and better at passing for humans.
Over the past few years, software/bots have also started getting creative. They are now writing comics, composing music, taking photos and publishing their own books. They glitch, transform or sample data and metadata, they automate creative processes and eventually contribute to the emergence of new cultural forms. Vacheron and Nova call this phenomenon ‘creolization.’ Creolization is a term used by linguists and anthropologists to indicate the process of assimilation in which neighbouring or colonizing/colonized cultures borrow certain features from the other and end up forming a new distinct culture. An important feature of creolization leads to the creation of original forms and new cultures, it is thus not just about assimilating or mixing cultures.
Twitterbots that collect bits of sentences and images and then spit them up as absurd new genres of literature, books compiled from accumulated Youtube comments and then sold on Amazon, photo series that expand the means of production of photo works, etc. The examples of the creolization in the digital sphere are endless, fascinating, often funny and sometimes downright moving and poetical.
Call this phenomenon creolization or call it any way you want, what remains is that DADABOT. An Introduction to Machinic Creolization is a unique, impeccably researched, witty and exciting book that illustrates and even plays with these new algorithmic cultures while pointing to a number of thought-provoking issues about authorship and aesthetics.
But perhaps the most invigorating aspect of the book is the way it demonstrates that designers, artists and developers are not afraid of the growing place that bots are taking into their own disciplines. Instead, they embrace it. For many of them, it’s about the thrill of creating original forms of cultures in collaboration with machines but it is also about exploring new working patterns and logic, questioning the notion of authorship, probing the aesthetic of the works, redefining the role of the machine as well as the one of the artist/designer.
The theme of the book is reflected in the format of the Dadabot book. It mixes interviews with artists and creative coders, lexicon, academic essays, glitched photos, experiments with mechanical turks, etc. The result is a kind of irreverent collage that you can read from page 1 till the end as you would read any other book or that you can browse randomly according to your own mood of the moment.
I’ll close this quick review with a list of a couple of the MANY projects i discovered in the book:
Networked Optimization is a series of three crowdsourced versions of popular self-help books. The full text is set in white on a white background. The only sentences that remain readable consists of the “popular highlights” – the passages that were underlined by many Kindle users. Each time a passage is underlined, it is automatically stored in Amazon’s data centers. Harvesting its customers micro-labour, the act of reading becomes a data-mining process.
A Ship Adrift takes the data from a weather station and applies it to an imaginary airship piloted by an AI autopilot. The movement of the boat follows the speed, direction and force of winds detected by sensors situated in the boat that stands on the roof of the Southbank Centre in London. A program tracking geolocated content such as Tweets, Wikipedia entries, or ads posted online are linked to places and events situated in the vicinity of the virtual position of the boat.
Every Face in the Americans extracts the faces of the people appearing in Robert Frank’s famous photo series The Americans. The artist used iPhoto’s facial recognition system which incidentally resulted in the disappearance of several of the portraits.
Scouring through Google Street View, Marion Balac realized that the algorithms of the mapping service had anthropomorphized and accidentally blurred out the face of the statues of deities that its car had encountered along the road.
“The Google robot makes no distinction between a human face and its reproduction, but it still gives us the feeling that it recognizes us,” Balac told The Creators Project. “It treats every human face it encounters as data, without exceptions, neglecting religious or scale principles.”
Holly Herndon (in collaboration with Akihiko Taniguchi), Chorus, 2014
Diego Collado hunted for used digital memory cards of phones and cameras. Then, with the help of a Data Recovery software, the artist started to recompose what could be rescued from the images erased. The digital traces of personal moments from the past are thus reinterpreted by the software.
Webdriver Torso is a YouTube account that posts mostly 11-second videos consisting of blue and red rectangles that change position, accompanied by a series of beeps which change in pitch. After much speculation, it was revealed that the channel was created by YouTube as an internal testing utility for the platform performance.
The DocLab Expo: Seamless Reality exhibition takes place each year in Amsterdam in the framework of IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. The event showcases thirty installations, virtual reality environments, experiments with artificial intelligence, and other interactive projects that explore the future of documentary storytelling.
1. Most of the works exhibited challenge the concept of ‘interactivity’ far more efficiently than many of the projects i see at some of the media art festivals i visit each year. Because their focus is on story-telling (rather than, say, subverting or expanding the limits of technology), they tend to me more compelling too. On the other hand, these experimental works make an innovative use of technology and thus tend to feel constrained by the label ‘documentary’. They fall somewhere between media art and documentary making. And that’s what makes them cutting-edge and engaging.
2. DocLab Expo is a free exhibition and it offers a great mix of socially-engaged works that deal with issues ranging from factory labour to activism in Pakistan and experiences that see visitors engage in unconventional activities such as eating meat ice cream, entering a mortuary chest to experience the death of JFK, or being offended by a talking CCTV camera.
3. I saw that DocLab provided visitors with cleaning cloths to sanitize the VR goggles. I don’t want to sound like a hygiene freak (that’s called mysophobia says wikipedia) but try and stay poised when the person who was watching the documentary before you hands you foundation-covered goggles to slip on your head. So they might not be super eco-friendly these little cleaning cloths but they come in handy in such settings!
Here’s a subjective tour of the exhibition and i’ll try to keep it short-ish to make up for boring you stiff with my interminable notes from the DocLab: Interactive Conference the other day:
In 1974, George Perec sat in Saint-Sulpice Square in Paris and started to write down the activity around him. Not the remarkable and the curious, but all the mundane things that usually pass unnoticed. The experimental literary work, called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place, has inspired one of Kyle McDonald‘s latest artworks.
Nothing truly notable happens in the video of Exhausting a Crowd. You see people going about their daily life in a public place. What gets your attention though is that the work allows observers to attach a “tags” to the people in the crowd, either as speech bubbles with imaginary conversations or thoughts or annotations that comment on the surrounding scene. Some of the notes are witty, others are touching or just plain silly. Although the faces of passerby are too small and blurry to allow you to identify anyone in the crowd, Exhausting a Crowd shows the potential for a new type of hyper-detailed surveillance that combines automation and the participation of citizens.
The version commissioned by DocLab showed images from different locations in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and elsewhere in The Netherlands.
Bistro in Vitro is a fictional restaurant specializing in lab-grown meat dishes and inviting us to reflect upon the many ways we might consume it in the future: knitted, see through, tickling your throat, sourced from celebs, etc. Or in the form of an ice cream.
At DocLab, an In Vitro van was offering visitors flavours of speculative meat ice creams that ranged from ‘The Ice Queen’ containing DNA from the Dutch royal family to ‘The Dragon’, a fire-breathing blend of meat that tastes of mythological beast.
Ultimately, philosopher and scientist Koert van Mensvoort and his organization Next Nature Network are using Bistro In Vitro to explore the blurring of boundaries between nature and technology, between what is “born” and what is “made.” If you’re curious about their research, check out The In Vitro Meat Cookbook.
Dagmar van Wersch and Bert Hana have used Google Street View to explore the Fukushima nuclear disaster zone and scan some of its buildings. Using the images they found on the platform, they created construction kits of the houses and invited visitors of DocLab to reconstruct the Japanese houses in Amsterdam by folding the paper kits into 3D buildings. Rebuild Fukishima combines these 3D paper kits with audio interviews of former inhabitants of the area who share their memory of the disaster and give us an idea of what it means to be unable to return home.
Ziv Schneider & Laura Chen, RecoVR Mosul: A Collective Reconstruction. DocLab Expo: Seamless Reality, IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum
The unfortunate Mosul Museum has not only been badly looted during the 2003 Iraq War, it was further ransacked last year by ISIL. The video of the militants using sledgehammers to destroy historic sites and artifacts toured and shocked the world. RecoVR: Mosul, a Collective Reconstruction crowd sources images from people who had previously visited the museum to digitally reconstruct these artifacts in a virtual reality installation. The DocLab exhibition showed both a series of small 3D printed reproductions of the statues (such as the Lion of Mosul) and the VR environment. The work was created at Economist Media Labs in New York, and in collaboration with Project Mosul, a volunteer group that crowdsourced images of the destroyed Mosul artifacts.
View of the exhibition DocLab Expo: Seamless Reality. DocLab Expo: Seamless Reality, IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum
The Deeper They Bury Me brings you closer to Herman Wallace, a political prisoner in Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola Prison, since 1972. One of the Angola Three men, Wallace has spent more than 41 years in prison and was released October 1, 2013, 3 days before he died of cancer.
He was sent to Angola prison in 1971 for armed robbery and convicted a year later of stabbing a prison guard together with Albert Woodfox. It is very likely that they didn’t commit the crime but were framed because of their political convictions.
The very moving documentary plays a bit like a video game and allows you to look around the solitary confinement cell where Wallace spent 4 decades of his life but also to discover the imaginary home he was asked to design by artist Jackie Sumell. Animations depict his dreams. Archive footage allow us to hear him talk about his strategies for survival, the emotional strains of spending 23 hours per day in a cell, the lack of privacy, the infrastructure of U.S. prison buildings, etc. There is a lot to explore in this work but you’re allowed to wander around Wallace’s world for no longer than 20 minutes, the maximum amount of time a prisoner can spend on the phone each day.
The Deeper They Bury Me also illustrates the American penal system, with its cruel practice of extended solitary confinement, the high incarceration rate and the disproportionate number of coloured people sent behind bars.
Do Not Track combines short video interviews with privacy activists and interactive elements to reveal who is tracking us online and how private information extrapolated from our Internet activities is being collected, used and monetized.
Spending time on the platform watching the videos quickly gets pretty upsetting. The narrator’s identity as well as the content and language of the videos are determined by your own data: your IP address, your Facebook activity, your browsing habits, etc. Our post-Snowden age suddenly gets tangible.
The Enemy is an immersive installation which brings face to face combatants from opposite sides. Wearing the VR goggles, you stand in the same room as them and are a witness to their dreams, fears and reasons to fight. With this work, war photographer Karim Ben Khelifa wanted people to feel closer to conflicts and its protagonists but also to try and understand what motivates human beings to engage in violence and to show that, very often, people fighting each other have more in common than they would admit.
Jan Rothuizen, who gave a fantastically interesting talk last year at the DocLab conference, created what is probably the first ever “drawn reality.” Having spent some time in the tower room on the roof of De Bijenkorf, the oldest department store in Amsterdam, the artist translated his experience into a 360º virtual reality drawing complete with the sharp witty annotations that characterize his work.
Another year, another intense and satisfying DocLab: Interactive Conference in Amsterdam. The event is a one-day meeting for filmmakers, producers, artists, designers, entrepreneurs and anyone else interested in exploring how digital technologies and new forms of interactivity are shaping the future of documentary storytelling. The conference is one of the highlights of the Seamless Reality program set up by IDFA DocLab, a festival program for ‘undefined art and unexpected experiences’ within the IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
The audience of the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Just like last year, the conference took place at De Brakke Grond (the Flemish Cultural Center in Amsterdam), had an amazing line-up and sold out almost immediately.
I was expecting a same old same old feeling, thinking that there’s only so much you can do with virtual reality but i was wrong. Story tellers using VR and other new technologies learn very fast from their mistakes and have established by now that simply applying what worked in video onto VR isn’t going to cut the mustard. For a star, as Jessica Brillhart said in her opening keynote, “there is no frame in VR.”
But what the event demonstrated once again is that VR is on a thrilling and promising track when it’s left in the hands of story tellers who want to “populate VR world with something else than porn and games”, as Gabo Arora neatly put it.
Something that i should add is that the DocLab: Interactive Conference doesn’t lazily celebrate White Male Supremacy and that’s a rare feast in the tech & creativity world. I didn’t count but at least half of the speakers were women and a fair number of the people who took the stage were people of colour (what’s the PC way to say it nowadays?)
But back to the content! The conference is a super intense 7 hour marathon where i’m getting hit in the face non stop by ideas, images and concepts that i wasn’t expecting. My notes below are going to highlight only the moments i found most interesting. I’m also not following the order in which the speakers came on stage. But it’s not total freestyling either, it’s more of a infantile ‘let’s start with what really got me really REALLY excited’:
Thomas Wallner at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Thomas Wallner always gives a smart, entertaining presentation. Last year, he talked about the pitfalls of using VR to replicate classic cinematographic experience. This year, he showed us how he used a balloon to propel a camera on the upper stratosphere and make the highest ever 360 degree shot.
His company, Deep Inc has also just released together with ARTE an app for broadcasters to help them distribute 360 degree film to their audiences.
Illustration of the Cineorama balloon simulation, at the 1900 Paris Exposition
Illustration of the camera mechanism for the Cineorama balloon simulation, 1900 Paris Exposition
Wallner also introduced us to the ancestor of VR. It seems that the first patent for a cinema that surrounds viewers with moving images dates back to 1897. The Cineorama, as it was called, premiered at the 1900 Paris Exposition, where ten synchronized projectors projected onto ten screens arranged in a 360° circle. In the center, a large viewing platform shaped like a hot air balloon. The film simulated a ride in a hot air balloon over Paris. Cineorama closed after only three days for safety reasons, due to the extreme heat from the projectors’ lights.
Ross Goodwin at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Ross Goodwin is a creative technologist whose work explores how artificial intelligence can augment creativity and push storytelling further. Goodwin thinks that nowadays artificial intelligence is as much a design problem as a computational one. Artificial is not perfect, it can be a bit glitchy but so are we as humans. Besides, the type of mistakes that machines make are very different from the ones that humans makes.
Asking if a machines can think is like asking if a submarine can swim.
While on stage, the artist demoed word.camera, a talking surveillance camera that can zoom on a person’s face in the crowd, ‘read’ it and say out loud what it “sees.”
Once the camera is in the room, it is impossible to ignore its presence like we would do with the CCTV we got so accustomed to. This experiment in how machines “perceive” humans is both creepy and playful. On the one hand, it hints at a very near future when surveillance systems will be paired with artificial intelligence and watch over us with penetrating but unpredictable eyes. On the other hand, its glitches and social awkwardness highlight the limitations of technology.
Karim Ben Khelifa at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Karim Ben Khelifa, The Enemy at the DocLab exhibition in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
After working for 18 years as a war correspondent, Ben Khelifa got frustrated with photography. He felt that, instead of making an impact on the real world, his photos didn’t seem to make any difference. So he started to investigate how VR could be used to give more power to his images, raise compassion in viewers and create new experiences because…
We make sense of the world through stories but remember it by experiences
I’ll talk about the result of his research at MIT, The Enemy, in my next post which will look at the works exhibited in the DocLab exhibition. But in a nutshell, The Enemy is an immersive installation which brings face to face combatants from opposite sides. Wearing the VR goggles, you feel like you’re in the room with them and get to witness what they have to say about their dreams, motivations and who they are. The artist is still working on the installation, planning to use artificial intelligence and the latest technologies in virtual reality in order to make it multi-users. He also wants to eventually send the work back to the fighters.
Angelo Vermeulen at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Angelo Vermeulen, Seeker
Angelo Vermeulen, Seeker
Angelo Vermeulen‘s work is about what he calls ‘entangled reality’ rather than virtual reality. During his talk, he told us about works that involve recycling e-waste to make hybrid art installations, Mars simulation in Hawaii to study the effects of long-term isolation over group dynamics, and using art as a vehicle to explore the world.
Vermeulen is getting increasingly interested in co-creation process. In 2012, he launched Seeker, a DIY spaceship model which people are invited to co-create by experimenting with technological, ecological and social systems that enable long-term survival on board. The project uses spaceship as a metaphor for reinventing the entire world. Seeker is touring around the world and each time, a new crew is invited to use, abuse, hack and transform the previous model of Seeker spaceship.
The Hive Mind at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
The Hive Mind at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
At lunch, the crowd was invited to take part in a Breakout game experiment. Everyone grabbed the ping pong paddle that had been left under their seat as the video game appeared on the screen. By flipping their paddle to the red or the green side, people could direct the white dot bouncing up and down on the screen. But your paddle only counts for one vote in the game and you need to be in the majority of green or red to see the dot following the direction you had chosen.
The game was inspired by Rachel and Loren Carpenter‘s 1991 experiment at Siggraph where the crowd similarly collaborated on a game of Pong.
Michelle Kasprzak at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Elaborating upon the Hive Mind experiment, curator Michelle Kasprzak looked at hive mind behaviour online and how online technologies can be sources of good (by giving a voice to minorities for example) or the origin of ruined lives, harmful hoaxes, misunderstanding and hatred. Kasprzak gave several examples of how photos, games and behaviours can be misinterpreted, used to deceive and get out of hands.
A good example of misunderstanding that spreads fast and furious are the photos published in the press that show refugees from Syria clutching their smartphone. Some people reacted by claiming that this was proof that the refugees aren’t poor and don’t need any help. In reality, smartphones are a lifeline for people who’ve lost everything, are far away from their home and still want to connect with their loved ones or simply know in which direction they should walk.
Kasprzak also talked about an online craze called swatting. I had never heard of that one before. It’s the kind of very awful, very stupid joke that i like. Swatting consists in reporting fake hostage situations, shootings and other violent crimes so that an emergency response is dispatched to the house of another gamer. The name comes from SWAT teams, police units in the U.S. that use specialized or military equipment and tactics.
A third example given by Kasprzak involves Veerender Jubbal, a Canadian Sikh man who posted a selfie on 5 August of this year. He was holding an iPad and getting ready for a date. The photograph was photoshopped to add a vest with wires around his torso and the ipad became a copy of the Quran. He was then ‘identified’ including by major press outlets as being one of the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks.
As Kasprzak concluded, technologies such as surveillance and VR have been on the horizon for a number of years but they are only starting to show their potential now.
Liv Schneider at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Designer and self-defined investigative librarian Liv Schneider has built 3 museums this year! Mostly virtual ones but they are pretty interesting.
Released for Google Cardboard, The Museum of Stolen Art is a virtual space for pieces reported stolen in FBI and Interpol art crime databases. The goals of the museum are to give visibility to art that is otherwise impossible to see on a museum wall, and also to familiarize the public with stolen items in order to assist in the their recovery. Another goal is to bring attention to the subject of cultural theft, especially as a result of war and conflict.
She believes that VR has the power to retain objects and experiences that would otherwise be lost, dissolved or inaccessible to the broader public. Schneider also collaborated with Laura Chen to develop RecoVR: Mosul, a Collective Reconstruction, a VR environment that used crowd-sourced imagery to bring back the historical statues and artefacts destroyed by ISIS when they raided the Mosul Museum last year.
Jason Spingarn Koff interviews Errol Morris at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Errol Morris at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Filmmaker and journalist Jason Spingarn Koff interviewed award-winning film director Errol Morris on stage. Morris has made a number of tremendously interesting documentaries. The two that were directly mentioned during the conference were The Thin Blue Line and Standard Operating Procedure.
Released in 1988, The Thin Blue Line, has a real, social impact on the life of its main protagonist, Randall Dale Adams, a man sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. Prior to directing the film, Morris worked as a private detective (which might explains why he declared during the conversation at DocLab that he considers “life as a crime scene.”) The evidence that his investigation gathered and presented in the film had a significant impact on obtaining Adams’ acquittal approximately a year after the film’s release.
The other film mentioned is Standard Operating Procedure, a 2008 documentary film which explores the meaning of the photographs taken by U.S. military police at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. One of the things that the film attempted to demonstrate is that a photo is only a piece of reality taken out of its context. Morris admitted being puzzled by VR but he also believes that VR has the power to show the context, to work from several angles and display a larger part of the reality that is relevant to a photo.
Morris is not only an award-winning documentary maker, he is also an inventor. He created a system called Interrotron that used a curtain and a teleprompter-like device that gives the illusion that the person on the screen is looking directly both at Morris and at the camera, giving the viewer the feeling that the interviewee is talking right to them.
William Uricchio from MIT Open Documentary Lab at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
In his work at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, William Uricchio looks at the spaces where journalism and documentary cross. Both are reality-based but while journalism is embedded into society and even has a specific political place, we tend to think of documentary in terms of films. If one wants to caricature, he said, journalism is about facts and documentary about truth. Journalism is often limited by these facts. It is also more conservative in its use of technology. Journalism uses the internet as a place to put words. On the other hand, documentary has been experimenting for years with technology and new forms of storytelling and is emphatically ahead of the curve. Even though some newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times try to innovate and work with documentary makers. Documentary needs journalism as well because newspapers have the larger audience.
Uricchio identified key conditions to make interactive documentary and journalism intersect:
– cross platforms by collaborating with like-minded organisations specialized in audio, video, documentary or journalism,
– allow the story to drive the form. Some stories benefit from being told using a linear structure. Others need more experimentation,
– experiment and learn. We are at an experimental stage and we’re probably not going to see standardization settle in (like we saw with television) and we will stay in this revolutionary phase,
– avoid pouring over the logic of massmedia,
– welcome dialogue. One thing that documentary does very well is shape conversation and that dimension is very important now that audiences can talk back.
More details can be found in the MIT Open Documentary Lab report that maps the convergence between interactive and participatory documentary practices and digital journalism. This way!
Ove Rishøj Jensen presents the results of a survey about the financial background and expenses of projects that have been selected by DocLab over the years. Photo Nichon Glerum
Uricchio was then joined on stage by conference moderator Ove Rishøj Jensen from the European Documentary Network to discuss the results of a survey conducted by EDN with DocLab about business model of the projects selected for the DocLab competition over the past 3 years. They received usable answers from 17 of these projects. The conclusions are that:
– the makers are investing a lot to develop projects that are not generating much sales.
– either you manage to get good funding, or you work for free. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.
Kathleen Lingo at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Kathleen Lingo talked about NYTVR, the New York Times’s venture into bringing VR to 1 million people. The publication sent a pair of VR cardboard glasses to 1 million of their subscribers and are now regularly adding content onto their op-docs platform. Lingo believes that the platform has so far been a success and that VR can speak to the larger human experience.
Towards the end of the day, Loc Dao, Kat Cizek, Marianne Levy-Leblond and Kyle McDonald were gathered on stage for a Future Predictions panel. Each of them had one minute to tell us one thing that is likely to happen in the future. Kyle McDonald showed this slide that hinted at how complicated our devices’ interactions with each other and with us might become one day:
Reem Haddad and Dima Shaibani present Life on Hold at the DocLab Conference in de Brakke Grond (part of the IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.) Photo Nichon Glerum
Life on Hold- Haifa Promo
The last talk i would like to mention is the one by Reem Haddad and Dima Shaibani from Al Jazeera. The duo presented Life on Hold, an interactive web doc that travels to Lebanon to uncover the lives and struggles of Syrian refugees. The work tells the story of 10 people, from a 7 year old to a 70 year old. It’s not about information and facts but about empathy, about connecting visitors with the characters and make them see that beyond the label ‘refugees’ there are regular people like you and i. That’s something that gets a bit lost in strategy and politics.
The webdoc features A Wall of Memory that invite visitors of Life on Hold to leave a note for the refugees. Surprisingly, none of them were hateful (as it often happens online.)
The website received many visits from North Africa and the Middle East but people from these parts of the world left very few comments. It seems that web users there are more used to consume media than to actively participate in debates online. But maybe their silence is also due to the fact that the content was optimized for laptop and not mobile phones (most users in the Middle East access media through their mobile phone.)
Despite being the nation that ostensibly spearheads the war on piracy, the United States was at its inception a “pirate nation” given its refusal to observe the rights of foreign authors. In the absence of international copyright treaties, the first American governments actively encouraged the piracy of the classics of British literature in order to promote literacy. The grievances of authors such as Charles Dickens fell upon deaf ears, that is until American literature itself came into its own and authors such as Mark Twain convinced the government to reinforce copyright legislation.
The paragraph above is copy/pasted from the book. It is symptomatic of a publication that informs, challenges any bias and assumptions you might have about piracy and does so with wit and intelligence. It also shows the spirit of The Pirate Book, a work more concerned with contemporary cultural practices around the world than with the legal subtleties of copyright infringement.
Sonidero in Mexico City
Music distribution from mobile phone to mobile phone in West Africa
The pirate book is an impeccably curated collection of essays and photos by artists, researchers, militants and bootleggers who share their experiences and anecdotes of piracy and anti-piracy practices through history and across cultures.
The first part of the book, the Historical Perspective, brings side by side key moments of the history of piracy with their contemporary counterpart. I’m not going to list them all (you can quickly check them for yourself as the book is both print on demand and free download) but here is just one example:
Above: Pirate Bus in Regent’s Park, during the General Strike, 1926
In London, independent bus operators appeared in the mid of 19th century, following the tourism boom that accompanied the Great Exhibition of 1851. Their vehicles were soon popularly termed
The contemporary correspondent of the London buses are the Google private shuttle buses, viewed as symptoms of the ruthless gentrification of San Francisco driven by the tech sector. Activists also denounced the unpaid use of public bus stops by private companies, which leads to delays and traffic congestion.
TV detector van, UK, 1963
Another entertaining chapter lists the strategies that cultural industries have adopted in their fight against piracy: educational flyers, hologram stickers, game alterations, false TV signal detectors (vehicles equipped with very conspicuous antenna that were supposed to be able to detect which households had not paid their TV licence), torrent poisoning, etc. I’m quite fond of the rather baroque way the publishers of the game Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (in Several Wrong Places) adopted to protect the copies from piracy:
In order to be able to launch the game, players were required to posses a physical copy of the instruction manual. When the game started up, it presented the player with a photo of a random woman. The player had then to look through the physical instruction manual, match her image with a telephone number and input it into the game.
I found the last part of the book particularly compelling. It counts a series of essays that explore local practices of piracy in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, China, India, and Mali and other countries where piracy is the only affordable way for many people to access culture, entertainment and education. The stories i was less familiar with came from Mexico City and from a city in India called Malegaon:
El Paquete hard drive, a pouch that protects the disc and a USB cable
Cuba’s isolation by the US embargo made audio-visual piracy vital not only for citizens but also for the government itself who needed content for its official television channels as well as books and academic publications for universities. Most Cubans don’t have access to internet and when they do it is neither fast nor safe from governmental scrutiny. But what they do have is El Paquete Semanal, a terabyte of music, movies, soap operas, mobile phone apps and even a classifieds section similar to Craigslist. Every week, unidentified curators compile a selection of content which subscribers upload on a hard drive that can be plugged directly into a TV.
Supermen of Malegaon, the documentary, 2008
In India, the city of Malegaon has built a parallel cinema industry that creates spoof movies of Bollywood blockbusters. These cheaply shot and edited films echo their own local context and rely on an infrastructure enabled by media piracy and the proliferation of video rentals.
The final chapter, written from Ernesto Van Der Sar founder of TorrentFreak.com, argues through an analysis of music and film sales that the music industry is doing better than ever before but systematically blames piracy as soon as a new film or record doesn’t sell well.
That’s it! A quick and very incomplete overview of The Pirate Book. I’d recommend that book to anyone who can’t make up their mind about piracy, to your mother who thinks pirates are a bunch of ruffians who prevent Celine Dion from making a living, and to anyone who’s simply interested in contemporary popular culture and in non-western perspectives on DIY and inventiveness.
Views inside the book:
The book is an extension of Maigret’s installation and performance The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users which uncovers in real time the hidden activity and the geography of peer-to-peer file sharing but also the aesthetic dimension of P2P architectures.
As befits the theme of the book, the authors invite readers to copy the texts of this book and do with them as he/she pleases.
Lucky me, last week, i finally got to talk over Skype with Aaron Gach, the founder of the Center for Tactical Magic and a professor at the California College of the Arts. Gach is an artist with the most unusual background. As part of his artistic training, he decided to study with 3 people who have their own understanding of power: a magician, a ninja, and a private investigator and there is a bit of the strategies deployed by each of these figures in the work of the CTM. The work of the group is further enriched by the expertise brought about by the individuals and communities CTM collaborates with: hypnotists, biologists, engineers, nurses, military intelligence officers, radical ecologists, former bank robbers, security experts, etc.
The Center for Tactical Magic uses any craft and scheme available, from the most magical to the most pragmatic, to address issues of power relations and self-empowerment. At the CTM we are committed to achieving the Great Work of Tactical Magic through community-based projects, daily interdiction, and the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation.
CTM's work combines appealing aesthetics, humour and language with actions that invite people to think, question and reclaim their civil rights. Their most famous project is the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a truck distributing free ice cream along with propaganda developed by local progressive groups. Another of their initiative saw them launch a bank heist contest. And a year before that, they responded to New York's stop-and-frisk policy by screening Linking & Unlinking on a digital billboard in Manhattan. The billboard showed amateur footage demonstrating how to pick a pair of handcuffs, magicians performing a classic magic trick called "linking rings", while a text from the American Civil Liberties Union was scrolling down and explaining passersby what their rights were if they were stopped by the police. In 2013, they set up big Witches' Cradles that evoke the Inquisition and enveloped people into an altered state (of consciousness, or an altered political state). Most recently, Gach directed and performed a radical magic show which drew parallels between magic acts and contemporary issues such as economic manipulation, political deception, vanishing resources, and social transformation.
Hi Aaron! The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is probably one of my favorite works ever. I first heard about it almost 10 years ago. The vehicle combines 'a number of successful activist strategies (Food-Not-Bombs, Copwatch, Indymedia, infoshops, etc) into one mega-mobile", and comes with high-tech surveillance devices. Are you still using it?
Yes, still using it! Not as much as when it was launched but it does still make it out occasionally. So it's definitely not an everyday operation, it's kind of a labour of love.
Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005
Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005
When do you use it? When there's something happening and you feel it would be right to intervene? Or more when you're invited by a museum or festival for example?
All of the above. Sometimes it's an invitation to do something with it. Sometimes there's an event happening or an issue where it seems like it would make sense to bring it out.
Recently, and for the first time, there was a protest event where i actually felt like it was inappropriate to bring it out. We've been having a lot of racial tensions in the U.S. and there were a number of protests in Oakland around police brutality. We've done police accountability protests with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit in the past. The TICU always brings with it a sort of levity or lightheartedness or a little bit of the carnival along with the serious critique. But because of how grave and serious these racial issues are, there was a sense that bringing the ice cream unit out to those protests could potentially give the wrong impression.
Have you found that you had to update or modify in any way your tools and strategies over the 10 years you've had the van?
Of course a lot has changed since we've launched it. At the end of 2004, there were not many mobile food trucks, it was not really a phenomenon at the time. The TICU turned heads a lot more than it does now in terms of its general appearance. But at the same time it also functions now as some kind of camouflage that didn't exist then. So in terms of masking ourselves, in some ways it got easier since it makes less of a visual impact.
As for the technology, when we first launched it we were using a mobile wifi transmitter and making it a mobile wifi hotspot. At the time, it wasn't that common at all. It was also expensive to do and it worked most of the time but the speeds for access were really slow. Most people now have access to the internet on their smartphone. The surveillance on the vehicle is still functional and the amount that we can record has increased. In the beginning, our whole hard drive system was something like 200 gigabytes and that has certainly grown. Even then, the way that we had the system up made it possible to record quite a lot. We had to do a tremendous amount of research to set up the power system. The vehicle was running on a gasoline combustion engine. We also had a generator, a battery bank that was being charged by solar panels and at the same time we were running something called phantom power which is a way of silently powering the electronics. This was essential because we wanted to make sure that the surveillance could be running even when the vehicle was turned off. This was more done as a theoretical design process, we wanted to see whether we could accomplish that goal. And there had been rumours floating around the internet of primarily military technologies that were able to do this and sure enough we were able to work with an engineer and designer whose main clients were the military and oil companies. Oil companies would run phantom power at remote sites where they didn't have power lines but they wanted to monitor oil fields. So we designed a system able to do that too for the vehicle. What is interesting is that, when we were in Indiana, the police illegally searched the TIU without our knowledge and they were caught on camera doing that. They didn't know it because the vehicle was turned off and there was no indication that there was power running.
Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005
Center for Tactical Magic, The Tactical Ice Cream Unit, 2005
Did you do something about it?
At the time we contacted lawyers and asked what we could do about it but they informed us that there wasn't much that we could do. We thought about publicizing the video footage. But at the time the TICU wasn't heavily used and we thought that making that footage available would potentially prevent that capability being used in the future. We didn't do much with it, it's in the archive. Maybe at some point, we'll break it out.
The ice cream truck driver hands out 'food for thoughts' leaflets along with the ice creams. What kind of 'propaganda flavors' can customers chose from? What's the content of the leaflets? Is it always the same or does it adapt to the events?
It changes all the time. At this point, we've distributed 200 to 250 different pieces of information. Some of it we select or curate. And some of it is selected by the organizations that contact us and send us material to distribute. The idea with leaflets was, on the one hand, to look at models of distribution that exist in community activism, models of distribution where people come together and act on campaigns that they might otherwise not hear or read about. On the other hand, we were looking at the structure of distribution. People are often reluctant to take a leaflet from an activist who is standing in front of them but there are different ways to get people to accept the information. For example, if you go to a restaurant, and you get handed a menu, you don't resent the waiter for asking you to make a selection. You tend not to select in the menu an item that you are put off by. You look at the options and decide on something that is appealing to you. So we were thinking of the menu as a structure for distribution as well. Our 'propaganda' menu exists side by side with different flavours of ice cream and people can pick and choose. There is no direct correlation between a chocolate ice cream and anarchism, for example. People can mix and match what flavours they want. The actual topics of information found on the leaflets go from alternative energy to guerrilla gardening to social justice, to gender justice, to war, war on poverty, class issues, feminism, post-feminism, etc. We also have a few historical items such as the Black Panthers Ten Point Plan. And we have information that is specifically created for children about Greenpeace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, civil liberties, surveillance, etc. It's a huge range of information.
Of course, i have to ask you about magic. I always dismissed the magic dimension of your work simply because i don't take magic seriously at all. But i realize that you do take magic seriously. Reading your interviews, i found that you are not only well versed in magic but you are also very specific about it. You said in an interview with the Center for Artistic Activism: "I'm definitely situated within the spectrum of stage magic and theatrical performance on one end, and occult and metaphysics, kind of ritual magic, supernatural phenomena on the other end." That surprised me because words like 'occult', 'ritual' and 'supernatural' are a bit dark, aren't they? How does occultism for example apply to your artistic practice? And can i engage with your work while keeping on ignoring any reference to magic?
I hope so. I think one of the strategies and challenges when building this kind of work is to always incorporate multiple points of access. Within the work, there has to be different moments that appeal to different people. We're trying to develop projects that are multilayered so magic itself itself exists at multiple levels. What i mean by that is that everyone understands that word 'magic' but they imagine completely different things when they hear the word 'magic.' We use the same language and assume an understanding but this understanding is vastly different on a subjective level and you can even add on a collective subjective level. When we use the term 'magic' both in the name and the realization of a project, there is a realization that there is going to be an explosion of meanings and at the same time a sort of dismissal. This dismissal is historically a way in which magic sometimes alienates itself, sometimes protects itself, sometimes separates itself and that can be as a survival strategy, as an escapist notion, etc. But i think that's where the power of that idea of magic exists.
In the Center for Tactical Magic, there is usually a concerted effort to try and balance out or explore the range of possibilities which typically get book ended between tricks on the one hand and some degree of spirituality on the other hand. When i began this investigation, my thinking was that magic existed only as tricks as a stage magician. The magician i worked with felt very differently. He thought that his understanding of illusionist magic would help in differentiating between the spookier sides of magic. And that opened up a lot of different interpretations and possibilities for me. Since then that exploration has become pivotal within the development for the Center for Tactical Magic.
What i mean by that is that it seems like a fixed position from which you can rotate in any direction. From a position of acting, it means that you have multiple options and directions that you can move from. It's a formal strategy, it's a discursive strategy, it's also a performative strategy for acting in the world. And some of that is informed by studying within martial arts where i learnt that you don't ever want to be stuck in a place where your options are very limited. For me it's not about being ambiguous or evasive just for the sake of being ambiguous or evasive. But you open up options, different ways of addressing an issue, a topic, an event or a situation as it is unfolding.
I'd like to go back to the darker side of magic. In the interview mentioned above you talk about occultism. Does it apply to your practice?
The word 'occult' literally means 'hidden.' When we think about what is hidden then all of a sudden what we might consider occult enters into that same conversation. So we look at things like military black budgets, or laws that are not transparent in terms of how they affect people's life. Or even the degree to which we understand technologies or how technologies operate or function, both in a physical sense -what is exactly happening inside the phone mechanically or electronically- but also in the sense of how does the functioning of a technology impacts us in ways that we don't see. And this can include things like the fact that it relies on invisible signals, it relies on the electromagnetic spectrum which our eyes cannot detect without other devices. But it also determines our social relations or economic relations because it impacts the way we communicate. Once we are open to those associations, we start to backtrack and look at how the history of occultism is very directly tied to our present condition. What i mean by that is the history of occultism is not simply people behaving in 'dark ways'. You need to banish this false dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. There are certainly colonial overtones to that association of dark as evil and making those connections simplifies what it is that we are talking about. Most of the claims historically of occultism in a huge varieties of areas is -to one degree or another- about empowerment and i think in 'darker' instances, empowerment means power over others but in the more positive instances, it also means communal power or coming to power together, or avoiding situations where abuse of power by others is taking place.
How can we bring more magic to our life? And should we?
I would go back one moment and say: i think you should take magic seriously but also not too seriously. I would say the same thing about government business. I think you should take government and business seriously but also not too seriously?
Why not too seriously?
I think because you have to approach it critically. You have to approach it rigorously. You have to be engaged.
There is also power in play. There is magic that happens when you approach something with a degree of levity, with this idea that there are rules to any game. And once you understand the game, there are ways to bend those rules or figure out how to interact in ways that might be unexpected. So it's not that we dismiss corporations or governments or that we disregard their power in the world but at the same time, if we take them too seriously and only too seriously we miss out on opportunities to subvert or circumvent what it is that they are doing in the world.
Maybe the shorter version would be to say that i think government and corporations are invested in shaping reality and shaping reality is an inherently creative process and playing is also a way to engaging creative process to shape alternative realities.
But let's get back to your earlier question which was about making the world more magical. I understand that when we develop projects that are magic related, people might be dismissive towards either that name 'magic' or the idea of magic. It is sometimes a barrier to entry but the hope is also that once people realize that their assumptions were false or misguided or oversimplified, there is an opening up in terms of what the possibilities are. Magic is all about constantly redirecting people's assumptions or perceptions about the world. So one thing you can do to have a magical outlook is to always question things like use value, status quo, associations for either materials or relationships and realize they are not fixed. Once you understand the ability to morph those relationships or associations, all of a sudden everything starts to become more magical.
The Center for Tactical Magic seems to be quite successful at engaging the audience, at making them part of the experiences. Including people who might otherwise not be particularly responsive to the kind of social, political or economical issues your projects raise. How do you manage that? Are there some rules? Special tricks?
We use a pop aesthetic at times and we try and draw from cultural themes and expressions that people can relate to but there is this uncanny element to all the projects: people will see something that they are familiar with but presented in an unfamiliar way. In that moment, a recalibration takes place, people start to consider their understanding of the familiar part with respect to the unfamiliar part. When it's done really well, it forces new cognitive categories to form. All of a sudden people have to create a new category and if that new category is potent enough it will also infect all future associations.
To go back to the Ice Cream Unit for example, people understand ice cream truck and they understand propaganda but when they have the two things together, it changes their associations with both and in the future there is a moment where they encounter another ice cream truck or another model of distribution and it will connect back to the experience that they had with the TICU and potentially it informs their future relations to other things that are connected. Maybe that is expecting too much from a project but that's the hope in the way these projects are constructed.
Most of the work of the Center is quite political. Have you ever faced any legal retaliation? or problems with the police? for the Linking & Unlinking - Know Your Rights screening, for example? Or for any other work?
It happens on a semi regular basis. There haven't been huge entanglement. Knock on wood! Most of the time, it's some sort of confrontation and it usually more or less resolves itself quietly. There was a standoff with the police with the TICU in Vancouver, Canada, that lasted quite a long time. With the Cricket-Activated Defense System, there were some interesting correspondence, communications and interviews that seemed to come from law enforcement. Strangely enough, the police tried to prevent the kite project (that we did at Huntington Beach in California) from happening and when it did happen they flew a helicopter over the event to monitor it.
It happens from time to time but we do consult with lawyers around our projects, we are generally pretty good at making sure that the conversation with law enforcement doesn't get us into hotter water than need be. I'm trying to be very careful with my language there. There have been some tough times. There's been some times when we have attracted attention that was problematic.
Center for Tactical Magic, Cricket-Activated Defense System, 2000
Center for Tactical Magic, Cricket-Activated Defense System, 2000
So you're not actively encouraging confrontation or censorship as a part of your artistic strategy? As a way to generate more attention about a given issue?
No. Projects that court confrontation often strengthen polemic and thinking in those binary systems. Even in projects where we are addressing things like police and protester dynamics, we are not trying to diffuse those situations, we are trying to figure out the approach or the position from which you can have the most productive outcome. A confrontation where you are doing something potentially illegal and then you get a police response does not produce a ripple through a greater discourse. What might become a productive moment is when someone is actually practicing their civil or legal rights within a certain context and that person makes visible the power dynamics that might suppress those rights.
Daniel Ferrer (Lucifer), left, and Aaron Gach (Magician) perform in "The Light and Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show," opening May 28 at UC Davis. Huan Yu/Courtesy photo
It was the first time that i had ever worked into a theatre context. I was writing and directing. Two weeks before the first show, the lead actor broke his hand. He happened to be a student that i was training as a magician. I ended up having to step in as the lead, as the magician. I ended up writing, directing and acting for this first theatre production. So it was unexpected and a bit wild but the audience response was fantastic. People seemed to love it.
Any other upcoming works, research, events you'd like to share with us?
There's two shows coming up. One is an art show in New Mexico that is specifically oriented around the police state and surveillance. And then there's an event in Atlanta, Georgia. A public arts festival with tens of thousands of people that come out for a single night event. We have a new project in the works for that event but it's still very much in development.
This Friday, the National Football Museum in Manchester is opening a new season of commissions, artists residencies and artefacts. One of the highlights of the programme is Out of Play: Technology & Football, an exhibition that explores the impact that new technologies have in the development of the game but also on the way it is experienced by fans around the world.
Out of Play: Technology & Football brings together works by designers, artists, scientists and fans who explore and demonstrate how football and new technology overlap in today's society.
The works on show range from a robotic soccer robot to the Soccket energy generating football, from the ever irresistible and painful Leg Shocker to the world premier of Jer Thorp's immersive installation The Time of the Game. The result is an interactive exhibition that brings into a highly popular museum an entertaining but also critical and provocative view of the impact that technology has on 'the beautiful game.'
The show opens tomorrow and i'm looking forward to visiting it in a couple of weeks. But in the meantime i caught up with curator John O'Shea. You might remember John from his work as an artist. When he isn't busy growing Pigs Bladder Football from living animal cells and developing his other artworks, John is the Art Curator and Head of visual art programme at the NFM. He has spent the past two years embedded in the museum with the goal of establishing an art and technology exhibiting and learning programme from scratch.
Hi John! First of all what can technology do for football? How does it impact the game itself on the football pitch? Excuse my very boring remark but it's always the same game of men running after a ball after all...
Over the past few years, some interesting questions related to technology and football have emerged. For example, during last year's world cup, goal-line technology was introduced following many debates around whether or not football should remain this 'primitive' game or whether technology should intervene on the field.
Connecting with these concerns, last year, the National Football Museum commissioned James Bridle to write a piece about it. In his essay, Spectacular Sports Visualisations, Bridle analyzes football and computer vision technology.
Near Future Laboratory, Winning Formula newspaper. Photo by Fabien Girardin
But even data and computer vision fit a conventional story of technology, it's about control, about making the game more consistent.
The exhibition Out of Play is different, it's not about showcasing the latest advances of technology but about looking at the more unusual points where technology and football are intersecting. And the outcomes are often weird, unfamiliar.
The Time of The Game is the major new commission which will be presented within the museum's immersive, 180 degree wrap-around, cinema space. Developed by Jer Thorp with Teju Cole and Mario Klingemann, the work brings together almost 2000 photos made by football fans at the same time as they were watching last year's World Cup. The images show private spaces, public spaces, pubs, etc. Most were taken inside people's homes. What they show is a communal moment shared by people from Nigeria, Brazil, England.... Smartphones equipped with cameras are now almost ubiquitous, you find them everywhere even in poorer countries and it's that technology that makes it possible to represent this moment shared globally by football fans.
Teju Cole, Jer Thorp & Mario Klingemann, The Time of the Game - a synchronized global view of the World Cup final
There is also a lot of humor in the show. We sometimes forget that football is fun. During our exchange of emails you mentioned the rather unpleasant coverage that FIFA is having at the moment. Do you think this will somehow reflect on the exhibition? (no need to answer this one if you feel the question is irrelevant)
The National Football Museum is an independent museum that tells the story of football in England from the perspective of the fans. The scrutiny FIFA is coming under is not really a surprise for fans as many have been dissatisfied with the federation for years. And this crisis only highlights the poignancy of a work like The Time of the Game.
The reason for this title is that we are looking for a common ground between art and football. (There aren't many!) But one of them is that both football and art have origins in play, they're both about introducing play into something. And in football, just like in art, it is important sometimes to remember not to take things too seriously.
The Humanoid Soccer Robots?! You're going to show them? a whole team? Will they be playing?
With the art programme, we want to broaden the scope of what the museum displays and collects so we've been developing new collaborations and partnerships for the future. Plymouth University is one of those partners. They are the leader in the UK in humanoid soccer robots and participate to the competition organised by the Federation of International Robot-soccer Association (FIRA) since 1997. The robots might look a bit basic but the ultimate goal of the competition is to have them challenge a team of human football champions by 2050. This might sound outlandish but if you think about it, Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997. No one would have imagine it was possible 35 years before the chess match.
For the exhibition, we will have one of the robots on display and the Plymouth robotic team will come and do a demo (no precise date yet.)
Humanoid robot team made by Plymouth University
Humanoid robot footballer made by Plymouth University. Image courtesy the National Football Museum
The robot will actually be shown in the same display as Soccket and Leg Shocker. So that's science, art and design, all in the same display. The energy generating ball might look a bit silly but the premise is interesting. Imagine it used in refugee camps for example. Children would play and generate electricity through kinetic action. The third work in the display is Fur's art piece. By new media standards, Leg Shocker is almost an antique. As a museum, we want to be able to collect new media works related to football. As we go along with the art programme, the team here is learning a lot: how to maintain these media works, what role they play as provocative objects, etc.
Could you talk to us about World Scratch day, a series of football-based computing activities aimed at introducing children to code. How does it work? How exactly do kids use football to learn code?
Scratch is a programming language developed by MIT. We used the World Scratch Day to enable visitors and communities to get hands-on with technology and make computer games.
Over the course of the day, 80 children in groups of 6 or 7 came to the museum and were able to create simple animation works related to football, make simple games or work with Sonic Pi software to make their own version of the match of the day theme song. It was like a little hackathon for kinds. Ultimately, what we'd like to do is see groups come and use the museum over the weekends to learn some coding.
World Scratch Day at NFM. Photo National Football Museum
World Scratch Day at NFM. Photo National Football Museum
World Scratch Day at NFM. Photo National Football Museum
Next, i saw that artists are in residency at the NFM. Can you already tell us about their work there? What makes the robot lawnmower an artwork rather than just a robot lawnmower, for example?
We commissioned 4 artistic residencies that enable artists to develop works related to football clubs or to the communities around football. So far, artists were (unsurprisingly) more interested in working with more unusual communities than with football clubs.
Matthew Plummer Fernandez was curious about lawn mowers with computerized systems to design patterns on football pitches. Forest Green FC already has a robotic lawnmower which has its own algorithm for cutting the grass, it 'decides' which areas need to be cut more, which ones need to be cut less. It creates its own version of a field. Matthew wants to understand better the algorithm on board o the lawnmower and then create an online identity for this lawnmower and make it 'the 12th man' of the team.
Matthew Plummer Fernandez with robot lawnmower. Image courtesy of the National Football Museum
The other residency has Jen Southern and Chris Speed were interested work with WorkingtonUppies and Downies. Uppies and Downies is an ancient version of football - a game with no rules. Thousands of men try to move the ball in a scrum up the hill or down to the harbour. The artists placed GPS trackers on some of the men and will be making work based on the data obtained.
Now i'm also curious about your own work at the museum. You head a rather edgy art program in an institution that doesn't usually cater for the traditional art crowd. I think this is a great opportunity you have there! i'm quite jealous. But how do you navigate the desire to show good art and the need to please the 30,000 visitors the museum welcomes each month?
Certain languages, certain conventions are used in established art institutions. At the National Football Museum we have our own etiquette: Interactivity is a given, for example. You can touch things. And the museum is not a white wall space. So the question for me was "How should art fit into this environment?" The challenge here is to exhibit art in a way that is sensitive to both the work and the environment.
The National Football Museum has some challenging displays such as one dedicated to the weapons of hooligans, or football disasters. It also raises critical questions, like the Football Association ban of women playing football on its premises until 1971.
Hooligan knives at the NFM. Photo by Zachary Kaplan
There is sometimes this assumption that making bold statements in an art museum context is going to have a huge impact but often artists are just making a gestures to people already informed about the issue they're trying to address. Basically, the established art community is often just talking to itself. The National Football Museum, I feel belongs more to the public realm and the works in the show have the potential to influence anyone among our visitors, not just a self-selected audience.
Out of Play opens on 19 June at the National Football Museum, Manchester, UK. It remains open until 19 July 2015.
Queen's Coat of Arms, in Neon, 2014. Photo by Luke Hayes
Photo by Luke Hayes
In the playhouse, as in the courtroom, an event already completed is re-enacted in a sequence which allows its meaning to be searched out. [...] The courtroom is, or should be, a theatrical space, one which evokes expectations of the uncommon. [...] Theatrical effects are such dominant factors in the physical identification of a courtroom that their absence may raise doubts about whether a court which lacks a properly theatrical aspect is really a court at all.
Milner S. Ball, Caldwell Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Georgia
Lawyers learn their lines before their performance, witnesses are given advice about how to play their roles, the judge intervenes when the rules (or should we say the script) are not respected. Meanwhile, the audience sits on the side to enjoy the show.
The architecture of modern courtrooms brings justice and fiction drama even closer to each other. The International Crime Court in The Hague, for example, is equipped with cameras, microphones and sound proof sheets of glass that separates the audience from the main protagonists of the trial. In doing so, the choreographic structures of the court are becoming separated and externalised through the medium of video feeds shot from multiple sight lines, artificial viewpoints and mechanical movements.
Objection!!!, the latest work of artist, writer and film-maker Ilona Gaynor, pushes the court strategies and dramatizations to their most cinematographic limits. Using a series of models, objects, images and a fictionalized case in which a tv National Lottery draw is fixed, Gaynor exposes how the language of film-making manipulates the way a case is presented to the court and how it is understood by it. According to the whim of the team that scripts, shoots then edit the trial, the unfolding of a court case could thus be made to look comical, suspenseful, romantic, tragic or even satirical.
Camera Move Sequence, 2014
Among the pieces on show is a courtroom diorama the director would use to plan the filmic direction of the trial, a green Chroma Key Set designed to be positioned as needed and edited out in post-production, a show reel that illustrates cinematographic courtroom drama, an elaborate drawing that maps out the location of the cameras, dolly tracks and people required for the shooting length of a real time testimonial deposition, etc.
I particularly liked the photographic 'documentation' of a lawyer practicing persuasive gestures in preparation for a trial. The images are inspired by 1925 photos showing Adolf Hitler rehearsing his oratory.
The Lawyer, 2014
The Lawyer, 2014
Hitler rehearsing his speech in 1925. Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann
Hi Ilona! The starting point of the project is the new courtrooms built by architects where the jury is seated in a separate room. Is that already happening? And what motivates the change in architecture?
It is to an extent, with jurors becoming separated by glass and mirrors with live camera feeds and sound to accompany them. There was a surge in European courts that were being retrofitted into pre-existing office buildings, to save resources (and sometimes for safety of civil unrest) during late 90's and, the use of camera's, audio/video feeds is now becoming common practice and is considered state of the art.
The international Criminal Court, in the Hague operates as a very bizarre enclosure, scattered with cameras, positioned at varying heights around the room, their lenses sight and proximity fixed upon on the faces and edges of tables, glasses, mirrors and reflections all screening on live fed monitors to the both the prosecution and defence. These cameras intercut each other at moments pivotal of play, documenting the dialogue and sequence of events from much higher heights then those of eye level.
A view of the courtroom at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Photo ICC/Flickr
Court Diorama, 2014. Photo by Luke Hayes
Court Diorama (Detail), 2014. Photo by Luke Hayes
The piece that attracts the most attention in the museum show is probably the elaborate diorama. Could you describe it, what happens there?
The diorama depicts the redesign of a courtroom, the UK crown court to be exact. The geometry of the courtroom was redesigned with the audience in mind; the imagined viewing sightlines to be much more acute then they would normally be; the seats would be positioned as ascending podium steps (the kinds that you see at sports stadiums) to enhance the viewing experience.
The diorama itself is designed to act as a vehicle with which the 'event' or 'show' aka 'the trial' inside courtroom can be plotted and pre-enacted cinematically by the director and producers before it starts, much like theatre rehearsals or pre-recorded live audience TV shows.
The model was designed to be self-assembled, by easy slotting conjoining walls and furniture.
It also comes with a kit of parts that consist of prefabbed folding camera equipment such as: camera's, dolly rigs, tripods, microphone stands, audience participation signs such as "boo" and "applause" and a set of dramatically posed lawyers and corresponding court room furniture.
To put the diorama in context, dioramas are frequently used between stage / film directors to communicate to actors and production staff. It is used as a plan section for the action that will occur, the sequence in which it happens and what in spatial floor capacity. This work is very much about the positions, sightlines and choreography of people in space and time... in this regard the performance of the court has a lot in common with cinema. The curatorial voice of this work is for the audience to engage in the exhibition from a directorial perspective. What is exhibited, is the anticipatory tools (plans, drawings, scripts, imagery) with which a director would use to shape the production and this case the unfolding of a trial or 'courtroom drama'.
The Lawyer, 2014
The Lawyer, 2014
I'm quite curious about the fact that you chose to explain the work using objects. That's not unusual in a design museum of course but you are openly influenced by cinema, your work often refers to it, you hired an actor and there are indeed films in the show but they are not yours. So why didn't you just make a video to explain Objection?
I've got a strong aversion to films that's sole purpose is to explain a work. For some reason it's becoming common practice in design (especially when referring to objects) that the designer needs to reveal the 'imagined' interactivity of the 'objects', in some candidly scarce scenario.
For me, I actually tend to get accidentally commissioned to make objects; I don't even really value objects and often find objects hard to engage with, because somehow they tend to lack rhythm or sequential value. I see my work as studies, or compositions that try and allude to a balancing act of arguments or sequential chapters as you may have noticed I often index the 'objects' or give them a sort of taxonomy or textual story with which to engage with.
Cinema for me is a common ground with which the fantasies of popular culture are often revealed in much more interesting ways then most other mediums, films allow us freely to wonder around the unimaginable in ways that are contextually and textually rich. My work is often tiptoeing along the edge of this medium because I believe the interrelations between cinema and topics I often pivot around are inextricably linked: aesthetically, contextually and culturally. I am actually this year moving my practice much more into the film going forward, both professionally and personally.
The films that you are referring to in 'Objection!!!' are a series of edited clips taken from TV dramas and films that depict the courtroom on screen as a scene or sequence, spanning across the last century of TV and cinema. The purpose of this film is to put my argument into a broadly understood context... the collectively memorised experience of the courtroom, which for most of us, has been experienced through a series of lenses rather then first hand. The film of edited sequences also reveals to the audience the stylistic differentiations between filmic genres, revealing how hard it becomes to remain objective as a pervasive viewer (in this projects case, the jury) when a sequence of camera cuts, pans, soundtracks intertwine. It would be very disturbing to witness (or watch) a case dealing with violence or rape depicted accidentally or not as a comedy for instance; the viewer's perception and adjudication could sit solely on the head of a deft handed technician. Of course this is an extreme example, but we are much more conditioned to filmic languages, no matter how subtle they are, than we think. A fast zoom to face shot for example is a classic attribute to comedy filmmaking.
Basic Plot, Case 2194, 2014. Photo by Luke Hayes
Courtroom Drawings, 2014. Photo by Luke Hayes
I was reading the interview you did with Shona Kitchen for the Designers in Residence catalogue. I really liked the way you define your work as designing 'ruses'. Could you explain what you meant by that (since not everyone has the catalogue in their hands)?
I suppose what I meant by that (although actually not so much in this project) is that I'm interested in taking pre-existing functioning models or systems that often serve to exploit the misfortune of others (legally or sometimes illegally), in some form of monetary or political bargaining and use them in ways to turn it inwards on itself. For example the only way to counteract a trap; is to use another trap, which triggers the setting of a 3rd trap, then a 4th and so on.
It is within these terms that I define my practice of design. I would say that I design 'ruses' as a stratagem to plot, to plan, to scheme, as ways to imagine the conceivably unachievable but very logistically possible.
My work often uses design as a vehicle to manoeuvre the arrangement of material in space and over time to pursue an examination of the mechanisms of risk assessment, financial calculation, and rather more literal, legal forms of judgement, in order to generate new situations events or moments to invoke an aesthetic of precision, by really obsessing over narrowing margins of space and time, where exactness matters and becomes a force (I define as design) in its own right.
Also my work often takes form as an anticipation of another form, as a pretext often constructed to allow something else to happen or to be imagined.
My commercial work under my company name The Department of No, uses this practice in much more commercial spheres such as law enforcement, legal planning, crime prevention and script plausibility studies. The ruses directly relate when cross contaminating commercial work with exhibitions and consultancy, they all amalgamate, the fiction feeds the real world and vice versa.
For example I'm currently setting up a practice of licenced Private Investigators to operate in an office located in West Hollywood in Los Angeles, to investigate civil disputes across the city that repeatedly plays itself. The pretext being to write and direct a play of experiences and cases (individuals case plaintiffs unrevealed of course), but we will be operating as a real firm with real clients, attesting to real legal cases.
Photo by Luke Hayes
Photo by Luke Hayes
We live in a time of state control, secrecy and surveillance. But by turning a trial into entertainment, you remove some of the gravitas of the justice system and leave the procedures and interpretation of a trial into the subjective hands of a film director. I've just been reading articles from last year about the introduction of television cameras into UK courts to film the sentencing of serious criminals. There was a lot of debate around losing some of the 'mystique' of the courtroom vs helping "the public re-engage with the criminal justice system". Is that something you'd like to comment on?
I'm not sure the 'mystique' of the courtroom has ever really entered the minds of most, I say this though however because we have been conditioned to the action of the court, its demeanour, atmosphere and so on through television, film etc. Of course these are highly dramatized, with little or no legal references alluding to the true nature of the law but oddly, legal dramas are some of the highest rated shows on television... the sexed up Ally McBeal was supposedly responsible for a boost of people studying law during the early 00's.
I think there's a really odd disconnect between the perceivable "public re-engaging with the criminal justice system" and actual engagement with the issues that ensue due to pervasive camera's in the courts. The Oscar Pistorius trial was undoubtedly entertaining, however the engagement was only of merely entertainment mixed with a public lust for blood of a 'murderer' to be brought to 'justice' at the viewing onslaught of a booing crowd. It seems to be taking form as a contemporary Roman games, I'm not sure how to feel about that, it requires both a smirk and a exhale of disgust. But I think the 'vs' in the articles you were reading were perhaps in the wrong place. The more concerning question is how the cameras will inevitably affect the trial and veracity of testimony itself rather then jog the public's perception.
Ilona Gaynor is an artist, writer and film-maker. She is also the founder of research studio The Department of No and teaches digital + media students "how to tell better stories" at Rhode Island School of Design.