Category Archives: immigration

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

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

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE at Bruthaus Gallery, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Dani!

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

How to milk a camel and craft an embroidered computer. An interview with Ebru Kurbak

A School of School, the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, closed two weeks ago and i’m still struggling to type down the final notes from my visit to the event. The past few weeks have been exhausting and exciting but the end of the tunnel is near! I’m really happy to sit down today and write about the work of Ebru Kurbak, a (super talented) Turkish artist and designer based in Vienna. She was showing three very strong projects in Istanbul. Each of them reflects her interest in the often invisible political nature of spaces and technologies, and in the way the design of the ordinary can help shape values, practices and ideologies.

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet was the work that moved me the most. This version of the touristic guide of Syria was revised and annotated not by savvy globetrotters but by the people who had lived there and had just fled the country. The result is a poignant overlay of landmarks that have been reduced to rubble, routes that can no longer be taken safely but also everyday realities that survive in some form or another despite the hardship. The work, under its unassuming aesthetics, brings nuances to a country that has, in the eyes of most foreigners, transformed from being “one of the most peaceful exotic travel destinations” to “one of the most dangerous places on the planet”.

The artist and designer has also worked with migrants to create Infrequently Asked Questions, a series of workshops in which she asked just one question to people who had recently arrived in Austria, could barely speak German and had lost some self-confidence in front of all the new knowledge and skills they had to learn in order to get by in the new country: What are you good at? The work reveals the best way to milk a camel but also the fact that the values of things are social constructs, not absolute facts.

So Kanno and Ebru Kurbak, Yarn Recorder (Stitching Worlds), 2018. Photograph by Elodie Grethen ©Stitching Worlds

Finally, the biennial also presented Stitching Worlds, an investigation into how different technology would be if textile craftspeople were the catalyst to its industry. The collaborative project produced devices as diverse as a magnificent embroidered computer, an instrument that utilizes spools of yarns and threads to record and play sound, a board game that reflects on cryptocurrencies by requiring players to knit the money they need or a sweater that gives its wearer the ability to occupy electronic space by sending invisible radio transmission waves.

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet, exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

I talked with the artist shortly after my return from Turkey:

Hi Ebru! Your work Lonely Planet attempts to understand the present reality in Syria by editing a travel guide through interviews with people who recently fled from the country. How did you get the idea for this work? Did the initial idea emerge from discussions with people who have moved from Syria to Austria?

The initial idea actually emerged before I met the people. Back in 2016, the University of Applied Arts Vienna had dedicated one of their vacated buildings as temporary a shelter for people who just arrived from Syria. I was working there at the time when over a thousand people started residing in the building neighboring my workspace. When the University decided to put together an exhibition on this subject, the curator Işın Önol asked me whether I would contribute with a new participatory work. The idea for Lonely Planet was one of the few ideas I came up with early in the process and discussed with Işın before I set foot at the shelter.

I think the questions this work asks have a lot to do with my own experiences growing up. I grew up in Turkey receiving constant news about the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s and the Gulf war in the 90s. These were the “officially declared wars,” so to say. But, although not always recognized as such, there have always been conflicts in Turkey as well, and fragments of what one can easily call war.

“War” or “no war” is not always something that changes from one day to another, as the tourist guides depict. There is some daily life that continues, even if the amount might fluctuate over time. But, apart from the official declarations, when exactly do individuals acknowledge that they are in war? The research I did for the work was an attempt to understand how people in Syria experienced this merged reality of ordinary life and war. People that fled from the country must have identified critical moments, which made them take that difficult decision.

The tourist gaze implied with the travel guide also relates to the shame and sorrow I felt about not having been to Syria before and about how surprisingly little I had known about the country. The process taught me a lot of things that I wish I had known and seen before.

But then again, as said, editing a travel guide was only one of the few vague ideas I had in mind. As soon as I started talking to people at the shelter, they made it clear for me that this was going to be it. The people had just arrived to Austria and were eager to talk about where they used to live, how they used to live, what happened and what changed, as much as I was eager to listen. The guidebook gave us an objective framework to start from and our conversations flew smoothly and naturally from there. This made working on this particular idea more interesting for all of us.

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet, exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet, exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

How was the whole re-writing process of the guide like? I suspect it must have been a very emotional experience. Is what we can see/read at the biennial in Istanbul and on your website the result of long debates and discussions? Or did the participants all agree on what had changed and how in Syria?

It was emotional. Especially editing the first pages in May 2016. And, it was not only because we talked about painful things. It was a time when everything was very recent and all of us were in some sort of shock or even disbelief. I remember Mohammed, one of the people who helped me the most, pointing at the map in the guide and showing me where he had last parked his car some days ago. And I remember unthinkingly asking him what was going to happen with the car, and waking up with the fact that he did not seem to care. It was hard to grasp that people had truly left things behind—both physically and mentally. Seemingly casual things like that proved the immediacy and reality of everything.

The edits in the pages are results of long talks. But, there was no agreement sought among participants. I spoke with everyone in private, at separate times and places, as people were still quite worried about their opinions to be openly known by others in the shelter. All came from different places and had fought for different political views. Their experiences were different from each other and they relied on different sources for news. So, the work captures rather a collection of multiple realities than one objective truth.

The project relies more on text than on shock images, its immediate visual appeal is thus not obvious. Yet the ability of your Lonely Planet work to convey the shock of what Syria was before and what it is now is very powerful. More perhaps than the newspaper photos we got so used to. Was it something you realised right from the start? Did you know that this subtle and visually unspectacular strategy would be so impactful? Or have you, at any point, been tempted to add photos and colourful graphics to the work?

Thanks so much for this comment. I found it a very difficult task to work with such an emotional topic. A tragedy that involves millions of people in first person… I got terrified of unintentionally creating an inappropriate spectacle. No, I did not ever consider using imagery or graphics. But, I had not planned the calm aesthetics to add an extra impact either. It was my intuitions that brought the work to this point, which, luckily, I still feel comfortable with.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. How to cook Ashak, by Zarifa

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. How to build an Aqal, by Amina

The project Infrequently Asked Questions (iFAQ) reflects your own experience as an immigrant. When you arrived in Austria from Turkey, you had the feeling that the skills you had gathered while growing up in Turkey had no value in your new country. What were these skills exactly? And conversely, are there skills you learnt in Austria that are useless to you when you go to Turkey?

There are many practical examples that come to my mind, such as coping with snow in winter, or, riding a bike in the city. But, frankly, the most difficult skills I had to learn were about human relations. “Wiener Schmäh,” the local and slightly insulting sense of humor referred to as the “Viennese Charm” was exceptionally difficult to get for me, for instance. Before I moved to Austria, I had not realized how much I was influenced by the Anatolian culture. And there is indeed a huge difference between the two cultures in terms of how people generally relate to and communicate with each other. It took me a while until I could recognize how hard-coded my own assumptions and expectations were, particularly about personal relationships. This was an eye-opening experience. But, it was and still is a challenge to tune those assumptions down. I guess this is a pretty common feeling among people who migrate to cultures that are unlike their own. It takes many unnecessary disappointments until one is able to read some of the intentions behind unfamiliar gestures. The skills I learnt here are not as useless when I go back to Turkey though. They might not be useful literally, but they help me identify our unquestioned habits in Turkey and look at them critically.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Some of these skills and knowledge shared in iFAQ are indeed not very useful in Europe. How to milk a camel for example. Others are. How to recognise a good watermelon for example. I also like the turmeric face mask. What did the experience of working on this project with you brought to the participants? Did they emerge with more self-esteem? A better idea of who they are? A greater understanding of how different cultures can be from one another?

I wanted to highlight that having to learn new skills at a new home does not necessarily mean one is unskilled or undereducated in general. It just means that they had to spend their lives acquiring a totally different set of skills. So, actually, I tried to excavate and display the least useful skills to make my point clear. Later on, when I exhibited the work, I did notice many visitors taking a picture of the watermelon one in particular, saying how useful that information was!

Yet, for me, the work is neither about learning from newcomers, nor about repurposing skills and finding new ways for them to provide for their families.

I intended the work to address the local audience and decision makers more than the participants. I wanted to intervene in the widespread perceptions about the situation. But, the process did also bring us all to a greater understanding of how different cultures can be. The participants were very surprised and entertained by what knowledge and skills I found exciting. Also, in scope of the Vienna Design Week, I organized workshops taught by the migrant women. Local people from Vienna could register for the workshops and learn new skills.

The immigrant women told me they really enjoyed those workshops. It was a totally different social experience for them in which they interacted with local people on a different basis than they are able to do in their ordinary lives.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Did you work only with women? And if yes, why?

Yes, but not exclusively. The Vienna Design Week had commissioned this project and linked me to the Caritas Lernsprung adult education program as partner. I ended up working mostly with women because it was mostly immigrant women who went through a long and exhaustive voluntary education process at the Caritas Lernsprung. The courses were in fact open for men as well. But when I asked why there were no men around, I was told that men were not as open as women to visiting classes at older ages. At the time of my visits, there were two classes of women, one class from Somalia and one class from Afghanistan, who first were going to learn how to read and write in their own languages. Then, they were going to continue the courses by learning German. After that there comes information about basic necessities of daily life such as way-finding in the subway or being able to use a cash machine. The biggest motivation for the women I met was them wanting to support their children at school. There are a few skills in the exhibition that were collected from men, whom I interviewed during the project but at other places than the classes.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

If I understood correctly, the opening question for the workshops was “what are you good at?” I find it incredibly difficult to answer that one myself. Was it obvious for the participants to pinpoint what they were good at?

No, not at all! It took us quite some time before the process really started rolling. The first time I visited the class I was welcomed with amazing local food the women had prepared and brought with them. They also had brought a few beautifully handcrafted objects and laid them on their desks. I was extremely surprised and humbled by this gesture. Apparently, their teacher had told them that they would get a visitor and explained roughly what I was up to. The next time I visited, I cooked a pot of stuffed vine leaves based on a recipe from my hometown and brought it to them. Instead of bringing handcrafted objects, I shared examples about the most mundane knowledge and skills I could think of. For example, I gave them a recipe for home made hair removal wax, which was common knowledge among Turkish women during my childhood. Such mundane examples helped us move our focus off food and handcrafts onto more daily knowledge and skills. I asked them what daily skills I would have to learn if I moved to their village. They started coming up with the most amazing ideas on what to teach me.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

I liked the way you present the participants’ contributions. They are delicately framed like valuable artefacts. What is the motivation behind the particular way in which you present these skills?

Most of the visualizations and objects in those frames had been created in the process of collecting the skills. The participants and I did not really have a common language to speak. Their teachers helped us translate things but we mostly had to speak in broken German. I made models and drawings to help us communicate more precisely about the skills. I kept all those materials that were created during the interviews and later on integrated them in the instructional frames I designed. The instructions include plenty of visual information besides German texts because I wanted the participants to be able to follow and understand them as much as the local visitors of the exhibition were. When the participants saw the frames, they were able to identify which frame depicted the skill they personally taught me and check the accuracy of what I had gathered from our conversations.

I’d also love an iFAQ book in which you’d gather some of the skills and knowledge collected during these workshops. Have you thought about it?

Yes. With this work I received the Erste Bank MoreValue Design Prize, which came with a project budget for the designers to continue the work in the way they want. An iFAQs book was one of the ideas I had when I was pondering on how I would like to continue. In the end, I decided to rather expand the scale of the project first with more skills and exhibit it a year later. The exhibition took place at the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art, which has a quite local visitor profile that was amazing to reach. We also created a small catalogue on the whole project, together with Vienna Design Week, Erste Bank and Caritas. The booklet includes some of the collected skills, but also articles on the topic and process, and interviews with the participants. The idea about an iFAQs skill-book is somehow stuck in my mind. I am still collecting skills as I come across them and might pick up on that book idea in the future.

Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch, The Embroidered Computer (Stitching Worlds), 2018. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch, The Embroidered Computer (Stitching Worlds), 2018. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, Stitching Worlds, 2018. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, The Knitcoin Edition (Stitching Worlds), 2018. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects, events, fields of research you’d like to share with us?

Well, there are a few commissioned exhibition projects I am running in parallel. But, I have been mostly busy with wrapping up another long-term and large-scale artistic research project titled Stitching Worlds. The project questions the politics of invention in terms of how it influenced societal evaluation of skills. We looked at textile crafting techniques as alternative ways to create electronic technologies and spent about four years on making technological research in the marginalized space of often-undervalued women’s work. The project recently ended with an exhibition and a book, but also opened up a few new exciting research topics that I’m currently looking into. I’m very curious to see where those ideas will lead me to!

Thanks Ebru!

Ebru Kurbak’s projects Lonely Planet, Infrequently Asked Questions and Stitching Worlds were part of A School of School, the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, curated by Jan Boelen and organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV). The exhibitions closed on 4 November 2018.

Also part of the biennial: Staying Alive. A “wunderkammer” of disaster solutions, Halletmek. The Turkish art of speeding up design processes and Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies).

Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 2. The conference

Second part of my review (part 1 focused on the exhibition) of Transnationalisms, a group show and symposium curated by James Bridle at Aksioma in Ljubljana.

The event attempted to re-frame the discussions around borders, looking at how borders are strengthened, shuffled and blurred by global phenomena such as climate disruptions, planetary-scale computation and international politics.

Transnationalisms adopted a broad view of what border can mean:

Not merely the border between physical zones and between nation states, with their differing legal jurisdictions and requirements for entry and residency, but also the border between the physical and digital, when we apparently – but perhaps misleadingly and certainly temporarily – cross over into a different zone of possibility and expression.

Transnationalisms was part of Tactics&Practice, a series of seminars organized by Aksioma to reflect on some of the issues explored by new media arts today. This was a particularly successful edition. Maybe that’s because we’re in Slovenia, a country whose size and history places it naturally at the crossroads of languages and cultures. Or maybe it’s because this particular issue of transnationalism is in everyone’s mind these days, maybe we’re all wondering how geography, nationhood and our own sense of belonging are being affected by sea rises and melting snow peaks. Maybe some of us are tempted to believe newspapers headlines that prognosticate the collapse of our civilization if Europe opens its borders to people who have been forced to leave their land because of war, disasters or again, the effects of climate change.

Each of the speaker brought his or her very own perspective on the connections between borders, bodies and technology. What they all seemed to agree on though is that there’s nothing rational, natural nor sacrosanct about nations and borders.

Aksioma uploaded most of the talks on its vimeo channel. I’ve summed up below each video the notes i took at the event. But please ignore my notes and just press play:

James Bridle at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

James Bridle: The Real Name Game. Video: Aksioma

James Bridle, who curated Transnationalisms, explained what drove him to look into the issue. It all started with a document that came out as part of the Snowden leaks. This one: Procedures Used by the National Security Agency for Targeting Non-United States Persons Reasonably Believed to be Located Outside the United States to Acquire Foreign Intelligence Information Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, as Amended.

The document suggests that since the NSA is not supposed to spy on American citizens, they have to find a way to determine who the information they gathered from the internet belongs to: a U.S. or a non-U.S. citizen? Their strategy consists in observing the websites an individual visits, if at least 50% of the data browsed is American, they leave that person alone. If the percentage falls below 50, then it’s fair game to spy on that person. That’s what Bridle calls your Algorithmic Citizenship, a type of citizenship decided by the data that you leave behind.

The reason why knowing your algorithmic citizenship matters is that each of us has the fundamental right to privacy. That right not to be the object of surveillance depends on your citizenship. Only your own government will protect those rights. The leaked document, however, reveals that the rights to privacy can also be determined by a piece of software, not just by your passport.

James Bridle, Citizen Ex, 2015

In 2015, Bridle launched Citizen Ex, a software that tracks your browsing privately and shows where the websites you’re visiting actually are. Over time, the software build up your algorithmic citizenship. The other reason why you should check out Citizen Ex is that it makes visible the physical locations of data. Most of us have no idea where our data is going or where the websites we visit are located. If we don’t know that, we don’t know where nor how our identity is being constructed. The metaphor of ‘the cloud’ contributes to this ignorance by blurring any perception we might otherwise build of communication networks.

Bridle also looks at other cases in which digital technology has changed perceptions of citizenship, national politics and identities: Estonia backing up its own country (or at least its notoriously digitized governmental services and data) in an e-embassy, a small area of a data center in Luxembourg; a group of young people in Macedonia running a ‘fake news machine’ that might or might not have influenced the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election; Tamil people making up fake names for themselves so that Facebook won’t reject them, etc.

His research into transnationalism shows how much technological systems can shape reality.

Eleanor Saitta at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Eleanor Saitta, Performing States. Video: Aksioma

Eleanor Saitta, a hacker (and thus expert in systems and security), designer, artist, and writer started with a very personal take on transnationalisms but quickly moved to questioning our construct of nation.

Her talk addressed the speed at which the meaning of border is changing. That meaning is evolving so rapidly that physical borders are becoming irrelevant and that the infrastructures that make nations are becoming useless. Technology is driving some of these changes of course but climate change is also increasingly challenging the way we relate and understand nations. She believes that if we want to survive climate change as a species, supply chain and infrastructures have to work for the planet and thus need to be conceived up in terms of global -not national- scope.

“Let’s think in deeper time,” Saitta concluded. “We live in a transient moment of total nations, this will pass. An important thing we should do now is figure out how to prehearse an understanding of what it means to exist beyond the total nation.”

She also mentioned a couple of books. One was The Art of Not Being Governed by political scientist and anthropologist James C.Scott. It sounded promising, i’ve just downloaded the first chapter.

Mojca Pajnik at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Mojca Pajnik, Reclaiming Humanity – The utopias of world citizenship. Video: Aksioma

Mojca Pajnik, a researcher, professor at the University of Ljubljana and an expert in issues of citizenship, migration regimes, racism, gender (in)equality and media looks at transnationalisms under a more political lens. Her talk analyzed the European discourse on immigration: the way it is presented (a sabotage of sovereignty!), handled (by externalizing borders, making sure that countries like Morocco, Libya or Turkey keep refugees in tents so they stay further away from Europe) and how these strategies dehumanize human beings looking for a better life.

Reclaiming humanity against “the globalization of indifference” requires a utopian invention of “worldliness of people” that stands for a political project of equality, rather than the moral project of the defence of traditions.

Jean Peters (The Peng! Collective) at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Jean Peters is researching new tactics and strategies for campaigning and political change. He’s part of The Peng! Collective, a group of culture jamming activists who are incredibly cunning, fun and efficient when it comes to launching campaigns that involve throwing pies at members of the German right-wing party, denouncing the global weapon industry, allowing citizens to call up agents of the secret services, helping refugees cross the EU borders safely, etc.

His talk was energizing. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been uploaded on vimeo but as soon as it’s there i’ll 1. update this post and 2. let you know about it on twitter.

Marco Ferrari at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Marco Ferrari (Studio Folder), Italian Limes: Mapping the Shifting Border across Alpine Glaciers. Video: Aksioma

Marco Ferrari from Studio Folder illustrated the research that preceded Italian Limes. The installation makes visible the effects that climate change is having on Alpine glaciers and, as a consequence, on the re-drawing of the national borders between Italy and its neighbouring countries.

His talk took us to the archives of the Military Geographic Institute (IGM) in Florence where Studio Folder explored how national borders have been understood, surveyed and measured throughout the history of Italy. From books containing seemingly endless lists of coordinates, to the use of late-19th century photogrammetry technology, to maps. But the most significant change is that the Apline glaciers, which constitute the ‘natural’ borders between Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria are melting. The natural frontier is literally evaporating and the old maps are not valid anymore. A few years ago, the Italian government decided to define its almost 2,000 km long border as a “shifting border”.

Italian Limes makes this problem visible thanks to the small units that the team have installed at the frontier with Austria. The devices are equipped with sensors that measure the temperature, pressure and other data that the installation then shares with the public.

Denis Maksimov at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Denis Maksimov, steɪt əv nəʊlænd [State of Noland]: on potent futures post- sovereignty, nationalism & imperialism. Video: Aksioma

Denis Maksimov, a theorist, independent curator and co-director of the Avenir Institute, took Leviathan, the book published by Thomas Hobbes in 1651, as the starting point of his reflection. He invited us to consider the nature, history and future of the nation state through a redrawing of the giant figure of the sovereign appearing on the frontispiece of Leviathan. He replaced one by one the constituents of the nation state with concepts that would enable the emergence of an alternative ideology for political self-organisation: steɪt əv nəʊlænd [State of Noland].

Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

The exhibition Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology, curated by James Bridle, remains open at Aksioma Project Space in Ljubljana and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova until 25 May 2018.

This program is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Previously: Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 1. The exhibition.
Image on the homepage: Italian Limes by Studio Folder.

State of suspension: the “relentless, never-ending struggle to adapt”

A few weeks ago, while in Paris for the always excellent refrag (more about that one as soon as life is back to blissful indolence), i discovered Le Bal and its ongoing En Suspens/In Between exhibition.

Darek Fortas, Changing Room VI, 2012

The show explores how individuals and groups of people find themselves trapped in a state of uncertainty and precariousness due to bureaucracy, politics and other circumstances they have no control over. Frozen in a state of suspension, these people have lost their political visibility and with it, their place in the world.

The state of suspension is often likened to being paralysed or stunned, but it is actually a constant, relentless, never-ending struggle to adapt. The threat comes into focus. Time seems to be running out. It is a struggle not to break free from temporality but to enter it.

The exhibition is engrossing, moving and intellectually stimulating. It drags you out of your comfort zone by communicating a sense of unease that deepens as you realize that at some point, you too might end up being locked in limbo. Maybe climate change will drive us to become refugees too. Maybe it’s automation that will dehumanize us. Or maybe it’s some yet unidentified sword of Damocles that will reveal the flaws in modernity’s promises and prevent us from moving forward.

Henk Wildschut, Calais, Eritrean church, July 2015

Henk Wildschut, Ville de Calais, Partie Sud, 2016

Henk Wildschut, Ville de Calais, March 2016

Henk Wildschut, Ville de Calais, December 2016

Photo: LE BAL / Matthieu Samadet

The migrant is one of the most poignant victims of this state of suspension. Henk Wildschut followed the growth, bulldozing and resolute rebirth of the jungle of Calais since 2005. His series documents how refugees transform the landscape. With shacks and clothes drying between trees. But also with structures that speak of a semi-permanent situation: shops, sites of worship, bakeries, libraries, schools, garden, etc. Everything was razed in October 2016, before rising up again, albeit in an impoverished form and with far less attention from the media.

The photographer wrote:

That dignity was expressed in all manner of ways; the neatly folded clothes, the sleeping bags and blanket hung out, the way the surroundings were kept clean and waste disposed of. In the layout of their huts and the creation of small gardens, the inhabitants expressed their personality and individuality. I was moved by this need for security and homeliness. I wanted to use my photography to show how people retain their humanity in an inhuman situation. They symbolise the resilience of the individual.

Hiwa K, View From Above (still from the video), 2017

Hiwa K, View From Above (still from the video), 2017

Photo: LE BAL / Matthieu Samadet

View From Above was the most moving work in the exhibition (at least for me.) The video looks at refugee screening processes and reveals how following their logic to its most absurd extremes might help someone gain asylum.

During the interview necessary to get refugee status, an official checks to see whether you really come from an unsafe zone. He or she asks about small details about the city you claim to come from and compares your answers to a map.

View from Above shows a model of a destroyed city centre and tells the story of M, who undergoes interrogation to gain asylum. Before going for the interview, M spent weeks with people from a town in the unsafe zone. He has never been to that place but has drawn a map of it based on the conversations he had with people who came from there. He studied the names of all the streets, the schools, the major and minor buildings, etc.

When M finally had his interrogation interview, the official questioned him about the town and compared his answers to a map. M’s answers demonstrated knowledge of the town as it was seen from above. It took twenty minutes for M to be granted refugee status. Meanwhile, thousands of people who were actually from that town and other places in the unsafe zone waited as long as ten to fifteen years for the same thing, because their answers only demonstrated knowledge of their towns from the ground. The work thus reveals the gaps that separate administrative practices and genuine human experience.

Luc Delahaye, Eyal Checkpoint, 2016

Palestinian going to work in Israel are submitted to this situation of stanby literally, daily and physically when they are forced to go through repeated and mechanical control devices on their way out of the West Bank. Photographer Luc Delahaye tied up a phone to the entrance gantry of one of the checkpoints. The Palestinians, subjected to a system of distrust and humiliation, appear dehumanized and weary.

Debi Cornwall, Welcome to Camp America : Inside Guantánamo Bay, from the series Beyond Gitmo. Hamza, Tunisian (Slovakia 2015) Held: 12 years, 11 months, 19 days. Cleared: June 12, 2009. Released: November 20, 2014. Charges: Never filed

Debi Cornwall, Welcome to Camp America : Inside Guantánamo Bay, from the series Beyond Gitmo. Murat, Turkish German (Germany) Refugee Counselor Held: 4 years, 7 months, 22 days. Released: August 24, 2006. Charges: never filed

Photo: LE BAL / Matthieu Samadet

Beyond Gitmo give us a glimpse of the life and state of mind of men who have been released after having spent years incarcerated as alleged terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay. Reviled as the “worst of the worst,” many of these men have actually never been trialed and charged. Some have been released home. Others were displaced to foreign countries. The military prohibits photographing faces at Guantánamo Bay. Debi Cornwall replicates this “no faces” rule in the free world; their bodies may be free, but Guantánamo will always mark them.

Mélanie Pavy, Go get lost, 2017

Mélanie Pavy’s film follows a robot sent to investigate and clean up the Fukushima nuclear power plant. After a few hours under the water, the robot eventually explodes. Just before the screen gets black the spectator catches a glimpses of the carcasses of its predecessors. Even machines eventually succumb to man-made disasters.

The cold and sad images suggest the difficulty of recording in film the end of human civilization.

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, Le monde comme entrepôt de livraison, 2017

Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon’s fascinating video Le monde comme entrepôt de livraison also suggests the end of mankind. Except this time, it is one orchestrated by delivery companies that have replaced men with machines that tirelessly move items around inside gigantic warehouses. There is no place for men in this architecture made for mechanics and algorithms that carry and relocate physical items as if they were just sets of data.

Sebastian Stumpf, Puddles (video still), 2013

Photo: LE BAL / Matthieu Samadet

Short presentation of the exhibition En Suspens/In Between by Diane Dufour

In Between/En Suspens is at LE BAL in Paris until May 13.

Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These deterrents and the way they function elude visual representation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Menner, From a Disguise Seminar

Simon Menner, From a Disguise Seminar

Simon Menner, Transmitting Secret Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Hammerand, The New Town (detail), 2013

Andrew Hammerand, The New Town (detail), 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrance is free.

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

The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum seeking process in Europe

Back in May, i went to Athens on a whim. Of course, Greece has the most fabulous food on the old continent, firemen on motorbikes, soldiers wearing pompom shoes, and jaw-dropping architecture. But I also wanted to see The System of Systems, a group show that explored how political powers are using technologies in bureaucratic systems to determine the fate of asylum seekers in Europe.

What better place than Greece to discuss this topic? Not only has the country developed an intimate experience of the EU brutal bureaucracy since the early days of the financial crisis, it is now also attempting to aid the thousands asylum seekers and refugees who have reached its frontiers in the hope of finding a better life in European countries. Unfortunately, like other member states on the EU’s external borders, Greece is receiving insufficient signs of solidarity from the EU.

Image Danae Papazymouri

Danae Papazymouri & Rebecca Glyn-Blanco, And if the asylum seeker does not wish to participate in the interview? Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

The System of Systems looks at asylum seeking in Europe under a broader perspective. It is not only an exhibition but also a book and a series of events that aim to raise a better informed debate around the legal framework of asylum seeking in Europe, asking questions such as:

What policies are we voting for as citizens of European countries, and what is our relationship to this issue? How does the asylum system illegalise people? How are technologies used as processes of making and discrediting evidence?

The System of Systems ironically takes its title from an informal term used to describe EUROSUR, a division within border management agency Frontex. This subsection is an ‘information exchange framework’ and ‘surveillance system’ that operates on behalf of the EU. The process of seeking asylum is thus a ‘system’ composed of many ‘systems’. The rather clinical description suggests a number of rules and control apparatus but it also hides a series of complex and often harsh control mechanisms.

The System of Systems exhibition dissected the strategies used by the EU to ‘process’ and restrict the movements of people who don’t have the ‘adequate’ documents. It also examined the stratagems deployed by migrants to counter EU bureaucracy and enter “Fortress Europe.”

The show in Athens closed a few weeks ago. Other events are planned but in the meantime, i’d really recommend that you check out the publication of the project. Just like the exhibition, the book goes beyond the facts and stats you can read in the press and offers a more compassionate perspective on the asylum seeking process.

Here’s a quick tour of some of the works exhibited in Athens:

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes, 2012

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes, 2012

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes, 2012. Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

Since 2001, immigration authorities in Australia, New Zealand, as well as several European countries have been using forensic speech analysis to determine the validity of asylum claims made by thousands of people without identity documents.

While applicants are interviewed, their language, dialect or accent are scrutinized by language experts who then assess whether or not the way the applicant speaks matches the one used in the region they claim to come from.

Forensic speech analysis is far from being fail-proof, however. This can have disastrous consequences for the fate of asylum seekers whose application has been unjustly rejected.

In 2012, artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan worked with linguists, artists, researchers, activists and twelve asylum seekers whose applications had been rejected following a language assessment. Together they discussed how to raise awareness around the limits of forensic language and worked with graphic designer Janna Ullrich to create a series of maps that expose the realities of this technology. The maps demonstrate that a spoken language is not a static entity but an hybrid, living organism that quietly evolves with changing social conditions, with age or under the influence of crisis and displacements.

The maps have been exhibited in galleries and refugee organizations, but they have also been presented to a judge working within the Dutch immigration authority. The research was also submitted at a deportation hearing before the UK Asylum tribunal.

Eugenio Grosso, Papers, 2015

Eugenio Grosso, Papers, 2015

Eugenio Grosso, Papers, 2015. Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

Your documents don’t determine who you are—but they certainly have a lot to say about where you can go.

Eugenio Grosso photographed the papers left behind by those making their way through Europe in the hope of a better life. The photos were taken shortly before the controversial EU-Turkey deal which now allows Greece to return to Turkey “all new irregular migrants”.

Before the agreement, refugees allowed to enter Macedonia from Greece had to pass by a track that leads to the small town of Gevgelija. The path, a limbo between Greek bureaucracy and Macedonian bureaucracy, was where migrants tore apart and discarded the documents temporarily issued by Greece. Knowing their nationality could determine whether they would be allowed to continue their journey freely or be sent back or incarcerated, these men and women chose to leave part of who they were behind them. Each time they entered a new country, their identities had to be confirmed again and again.

Ayesha Hameed, A Rough History (of the destruction of fingerprints), 2015–2016. Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

A Rough History reveals other sacrifices that migrants are ready to make in order to be able to enter the EU. Ayesha Hameed‘s film essay and performance explores how some of them are cutting or burning their fingerprints to avoid being identified by the EU’s fingerprint database, Eurodac.

Nana Varveropoulou, No Man’s Land. Each room in the category B prison holds two men

Nana Varveropoulou, No Man’s Land

Nana Varveropoulou, No Man’s Land

Nana Varveropoulou, No Man’s Land. Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

The Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre was built as a prison. Yet none of the 380 detainees held there is serving a prison sentence. Most don’t even know when they will be released. Like other thousands of people locked in similar centers, they can be detained for months, even years. UK doesn’t accept them and the country they come from doesn’t recognize them. They can’t leave nor go, they live in a state of limbo.

During 2 years, Nana Varveropoulou worked with asylum seekers detained in Colnbrook IRC. She invited them to participate to photography workshops, gave them cameras and soon they started recording their life in the centre. In parallel, she produced her own photographs. Together, the detainees and the artist created ‘outsider’s’ and ‘insider’s’ perspectives of indefinite immigration detention.

Melanie Friend, Border Country. View of moat from Dover Immigration Removal Centre, August 2005

Melanie Friend, Border Country. The Visitors’ Room, Tinsley House Immigration Removal Centre (near Gatwick), April 2004. (The single chairs on the left are for detainees; visitors sit opposite)

Melanie Friend, Border Country. Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

Photographer Melanie Friend spent four years documenting what the UK calls the ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ (IRC.)

She interviewed detainees, portrayed some of them and photographed the interiors and exteriors of eight centers. At least the parts she was allowed to photograph.

The recordings of the interviews are particularly moving. We hear the voices of people who have no home nor belonging, are separated from their family and find themselves in a system they don’t fully comprehend. Some of them have been detained for months, waiting for deportation or asylum. Through they stories you get a sense of who they are, what they tried to escape, what they dream of and the psychological and emotional impact that life in this type of prison-like institutions has on them.

The photos only confirm the sense of confinement and alienation they have to face day after day for indeterminate periods of time: the high fences, the barbed wires, bright lights, security cameras, bleak rooms, lack of privacy, bars on the window, etc. Together, recordings and photos challenge the dominant representations of asylum seekers and migrants as ‘others’.

James Bridle, Seamless Transitions

James Bridle, Seamless TransitionsExhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

James Bridle, Seamless Transitions. The interior of Inflite Jet Centre. Photograph: Picture Plane/The interior of Inflite Jet Centre

James Bridle discussing Seamless Transitions at the opening of The System of Systems

It is illegal to photograph the detention centres, closed courts, lounges and private jets Britain uses to deport people. But James Bridle found a way around the restrictions. His work Seamless Transitions focuses on 3 key elements of the UK immigration system: a courtroom, a detention centre and an airport.

Field House in the City of London is the home of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), Harmondsworth IRC is a detention center near Heathrow Airport Heathrow and the Inflite Jet Centre is a luxury terminal at Stansted airport where businessmen check in for their private jets by day and deportation flights depart at night.

Since he had limited to no access to these spaces, Bridle had to acquire planning documents and satellite photos, interview academics and activists, and read accounts from eyewitnesses. He then worked with digital imaging studio Picture Plane to recreate the places as 3D computer models.

The film walks us through sanitized and empty environments. The work helps us visualize a reality that remains hidden. And while the images can’t convey the smell, the stress and despair these walls witness on a daily basis, they speak volumes of the lack of humanity and compassion of our immigration systems.

It’s about the unaccountability and ungraspability of vast, complex systems: of nation-wide architectures, accumulations of laws and legal processes, infrastructures of intent and prejudice, and structural inequalities of experience and understanding. Through journalistic investigation, academic research, artistic impression, and, I believe, the confluence of these approaches with new technologies, there is an opportunity to see, describe, and communicate the world in ways which have not been possible before, Bridle writes

More images from the show:

Design Unlikely Futures. Exhibition view The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

Thomas Keenan & Sohrab Mohebbi, EUROSUR. Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

Thomas Keenan & Sohrab Mohebbi, It’s obvious from the map. Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes, 2012. Exhibition view of The System of Systems at GRACE in Athens

The System of Systems is a series of exhibitions, events and a publication curated by Rebecca Glyn-Blanco, Maria McLintock and Danae Papazymouri.

AJNHAJTCLUB, a celebration of migrant workers

Bernd Oppl, Crooked Building, 2015

Evelyn Bencicova & Adam Csoka Keller, ASYMPTOTE

AJNHAJTCLUB, an exhibition at frei_raum Q21 in Vienna, celebrates the men and women who came from Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina) to work in Austria.

50 years ago, on 4 April 1966, the two countries signed a contract that regulated the legal and voluntary migration of labor towards Austria, and created the Gastarbeiter (guestworker) phenomenon. Austria needed unskilled workers to support the surge of industrialization and Yugoslavia benefited from the money that workers sent to their families back home.

One of the articles of the agreement stipulated that the newcomers had the right to keep and develop their own cultural identity into workers social clubs. The clubs offered immigrants a way to connect to their roots as much as it kept them away from the street.

That’s from these clubs that the slightly baffling name of the show comes from. AJNHAJTCLUB means oneness or unity club in english. The German word for it is “EINHEIT CLUB” and AJNHAJTCLUB is the phonetic transcription of the word. Because many newcomers to Austria could not speak German this type of spelling was often used to simplify verbal communication between cultures. One of the artists in the show, Goran Novaković aka Goxilla, actually set up a class room in the space upstairs so that visitors can learn to pronounce correctly a look-a-like-language that they can not actually speak.

AJNHAJTCLUB is a contemporary “club” that “aims to unite these migrants’ past and present narratives using contemporary artistic practice and research, providing a look back to inform the future. Although more familiar from black and white imagery, the guestworker phenomenon is still alive. The exhibition shows this phenomenon in full color, complete with animated 3D avatars, modern folklore, interactive performances and contemporary interventions.”

It is tempting to see parallels between the focus of the exhibition and the current refugee situation in Europe. The context is quite different though. While Gastarbeiter came as a result of an agreement between two countries, the people who arrive in Europe today have been forced to leave their home because of the consequence of wars and other global developments.

AJNHAJTCLUB is a brave, timely and intelligent show that celebrates immigration and the economic and cultural contribution it can bring to a host country (i only wish that Trump, Brexiters and their likes across the world would visit it.) AJNHAJTCLUB could have been an exhibition full of gravity, nostalgia and anxiety. And indeed it sometimes features moments as serious as the times we are living but it is mostly a show full of humour, lightness and self-irony.

A quick walk through some of the works exhibited:

Milan Mijalkovic, Arbeiter mit Vorschlaghammer (Worker with Sledgehammer), 2015. From the series Arbeiter

Milan Mijalkovic‘s large format photograph Worker with Sledgehammer portrays a worker on a trash bin in the middle of a construction site. The heroic posture and the bin used as a pedestal celebrate anonymous migrant workers who, every day, physically erect buildings throughout the country.

Milan Mijalkovic, The Monument of the Working Man

The bitter-sweet Monument of the Working Man was one of my favourite works in the show.

The video shows balloons that are seemingly blown up automatically by a machine hidden inside the beige pedestal. But the balloons are actually inflated by a man who barely fits inside the box. The artist found the worker in front of a store where workmen gather and offer illicit labor. A Romanian bricklayer agreed to do it, demanding 1 Euro per balloon.

The deflated balloons on the floor are a sign that the party is over. In this work, the artist adopts the role of the brutal employer, reminding us of the reality, where this kind of
exploitation is carried out on a daily basis. Using people to operate the machines in closed boxes is cheaper than using a reliable machine-operated system

Addie Wagenknecht_small (c) Bernd Oppl
Addie Wagenknecht, Optimization of Parenthood, Part 2. Photo: Bernd Oppl

Addie Wagenknecht’s Optimization of Parenting is a robot arm that gently rocks the cradle whenever the baby cries and the mother is at work. The work pays homage to the women who left their home to work in Austria back in the 1960’s. Some of them had to leave their children with the grandparents. The installation also alludes to the fact that in these time of growing automation when many jobs can be done by machines, the roles and tasks of guestworkers are changing.

Nature_2_curated by Bogomir Doringerjpg_small
Bogomir Doringer in collaboration with Nature History Museum Vienna, Curated by Nature, 2016

Bogomir Doringer in collaboration with Nature History Museum Vienna, Curated by Nature. Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

Because migrants are often compared to migrant birds, Bogomir Doringer, an artist but also the curator of the exhibition, asked experts from the nearby Natural History Museum to select a series of birds whose narrative could be compared to the one of the guest workers.

Some of the birds in the showcase go back each year to the place they come from. Others stay in the new territory and become part of its ecosystem. Either because they find better living conditions or because their original habitat has changed for the worse. Some of these birds are called “invasive species.”

Interestingly, one of the birds selected is the Eurasian Collared Dove. The species came from Asia via the Balkans to Vienna and is now regarded as a typical Viennese bird.

ASYMPTOTE_2_small (c) Evelyn Bencicova & Adam Csoka Keller
Evelyn Bencicova & Adam Csoka Keller, ASYMPTOTE

Evelyn Bencicova & Adam Csoka Keller, ASYMPTOTE

In the elegant and almost clinical images produced by Evelyn Bencicova and Adam Csoka Keller, anonymous models pose next to buildings from the socialist period of Slovakia. Their forms seem to merge into the powerful architecture, suggesting that bodies function as pillars for institutional constructions and for an ideology that raised much hope but eventually failed. The work also suggests that to a young generation often described as ‘individualist’, the aesthetic of collective participation must have a very seductive, if abstract, appeal…

Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

Krsto Papićs, The Special Trains (film still), 1971

Krsto Papićs, The Special Trains (film still), 1971

Krsto Papićs, The Special Trains, 1971

Krsto Papićs’ The Special Trains is an extremely moving documentary.

It shows how the men who had volunteered to emigrate to Austria or Germany are transported by “special trains.” They are accompanied by a guide who ensures that they will arrive at their final destination quietly and cause as little disorder as possible. Prior to their trip, the workers are submitted to medical inspections to make sure that they will be strong and healthy enough to get a worker permit.

The film maker interviewed a group of these Yugoslavian guestworkers on the train. Many of them had to leave their family behind and most are a bit dispirited, wondering if they had made the right choice, realizing how hard it will be not to see their children, fearing that they will be regarded as second class citizens, lamenting the fact that they will feel uncomfortable in a country they know so little of. The film follows their arrival at Munich main station, where they are led to a basement. From this point on, they are no longer called by their names but by numbers.

Bernd Oppl crooked building_2015_Holz_Pigmentprint_Buettenpapier_40_135_70cm_small
Bernd Oppl, Crooked Building, 2015

Bernd Oppl distorted sculpture of a social housing block in Vienna highlights the inherent instability of such spaces. The Crooked Building also reminds visitors that while the guestworkers actually built the structures, they received quite late (compared to other countries) the right to get access to social housing.

Nikola Knezevic_small (c) Joanna Pianka
Nikola Knezevic, V for Vienna (cropped window), 2016. Photo: Joanna Pianka

Nikola Knezevic. Installation view frei_raum Q21 exhibition space. Photo: Q21

Nikola Knezevic, The Placeholders (three oil paintings), 2016

Nikola Knežević‘s tryptich was another stand-out for me.

V for Vienna (cropped window) is a trophy to a guestworker employed in an aluminum factory in Vienna. Part of his job involved making each of the aluminum windows and doors for the Hilton Hotel in Vienna. The worker feels proud each time he now walks by the hotel.

The Placeholders are Mondrian-style paintings that allude to the presence of the phenomenon of guestworkers on the largest contemporary archive in the world: the Internet. Knezevic did an image search for the word Gastarbeiter and encountered mostly black and white images. Before the images appear on the screen, they are represented by placeholder filled with the dominant colour of each image. The placeholders that emerged while googling Gastarbeiter were sent to an oil painting company in China, where they were turned into abstract paintings and shipped back to Vienna. Everything was commissioned, executed and paid from a distance. The workforce is no longer required to be mobile as it was in the 1960s.

Nikola Knezevic, Not Yet Titled, 2016

The final work in the series, Not Yet Titled, brings side by side an ORF documentary from the 1970s about guestworkers and the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ film F for Fake (1974.) Both films use the same editing technique, the former to depict guestworkers, and the latter to introduce a professional art forger.

In each case, the camera follows a young woman in miniskirt walking in the street while male passersby (unaware that they are being filmed) stop on their track and openly stare at her. The woman in the ORF report is presented as an objectified and slightly threatened victim, while the one in Welles’ movie (who in real life was a Croatian woman living in Vienna), as a powerful temptress who directs men’s desire. The voice over of the ORF film even deplores that the guestworkers came with very few women.

The juxtaposition shows how similar images can be manipulated and given a different interpretation depending on the message that has to be communicated.

JOA_6341 (c) esel_Joanna Pianka
Olga Dimitrijevic. Photo Joanna Pianka for Q21

Olga Dimitrijević set up a “celebratory karaoke bar,” where visitors are invited to perform songs based on the lives and favourite songs of ex-Yugoslav women who live and work in Vienna.

Marta Popivoda, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved our Collective Body (still from the film), 2013

Marta Popivoda, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved our Collective Body (trailer), 2013

Marta Popivoda, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved our Collective Body (still from the film), 2013

In the center of the exhibition is a monumental projection of Marta Popivoda’s film study on “Yugoslavia: How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013)”. The film uses archive footage to draw a personal perspective on the history of socialist Yugoslavia and its tragic end. The footage focuses on state performances (such as May Day parades and Youth Day celebrations) and on counter-demonstrations (student and civic demonstrations in the ‘90s, and the so-called Bulldozer Revolution which overthrew Slobodan Milošević in 2000.) Ultimately, the archive images demonstrate how ideology has the power to shape performances of crowds of people operating as one, but it also exposes the power of the same crowds to destroy the ideology.

More images from the exhibition:

Marko Lulic_Modell für ein Denkmal für Migration in Perusic_small (c) Joanna Pianka
Marko Lulic, für ein Denkmal für Migration in Perusic. Photo: Joanna Pianka

Josip Novosel_small (c) Bernd Oppl
Josip Novosel, U Can Sit With Us. Photo: Bernd Oppl

Leyla Cardenas_small (c) Bernd Oppl
Leyla Cardenas, Overlaying. Photo: Bernd Oppl

Claudia Maté, Untitled

Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

If you speak german, then well done you! You can enjoy this interview that Vice did with curator and artist Bogomir Doringer. Otherwise, i’d recommend the lively audio guide tour with the curator.

AJNHAJTCLUB was curated by Bogomir Doringer. The show remains open at the frei_raum Q21 exhibition space, MuseumsQuartier in Vienna until 4 September 2016.