Category Archives: performance

CCTV cameras, robots and urban animals. An interview with Teresa Dillon

Putting Teresa Dillon inside a neatly labelled box is impossible. She is an artist, educator and researcher whose practice involves works as diverse as a performance inspired by women whose skin and hair turned yellow while working in WW1 ammunition factories, cardboard structures that explore the affects surveillance architectures have on non-human animals, collective bike rides for energy harvesting, talks & workshops that probe into the mechanisms governing urban life, etc. If that were not enough, she is also the principal investigator at Repair Acts (a multidisciplinary network of people concerned with the necessity to foster a repair, care and maintenance culture) and a Professor of City Futures at the School of Art and Design, University of West England (UWE) in Bristol.

Teresa Dillon, Are You Still Watching?, 2017. Image credit: Ministry of Transport, Sustainable Mobility and Transport Electrification of the Quebec Government

I’ve been meaning to interview her for ages and the upcoming Nø School summer school (where we’ll both be teaching and workshoping along with artists, academics, hackers and other amazing people) in Nevers, France, gave me an excuse to finally get in touch with her.

Teresa Dillon, AMHARC, 2018

Teresa Dillon, AMHARC, 2018

In this interview, we mostly talked about a performance that explores her relationship with machines, her involvement in repair culture and technology’s impact on other animal species.

Hi Teresa! I’m very moved by AMHARC, Are You Still Watching? and other works of yours that look at the impact that technologies and in particular surveillance technologies have on non-human animals. It’s an under-explored area of investigation. At least that’s my impression. What drove you to explore the effect that technology has on other species and in particular on urban wildlife?

Thanks Régine. I agree that dialogues relating to surveillance, technology and cities have largely been human-centered. My motivation to explore the area is rooted across multiple vectors. In my human-ness, I’ve always felt very animal and that our human-ness emerges from an entanglement with other species and our environs. So this base sits within my work and is expressed in different manners through performances, sound works, writing, research and installations, I’ve made in relation to survival and the techno-civic.

The specific turn towards the effect of technology on other species emerged from work during the mid-2000s projects like OFFLOAD, Systems for Survival (2007), Come Outside (2005), The Listening Chair all took urban space as the carrier so to speak, through which relationships between nature, ecology, systems thinking and cybernetics were explored. These projects were collaborative works, which I created under the name polarproduce and involved many others, such as the artist Kathy Hinde. Back then we were operating from a post-apocalyptic, post-tipping point feeling and so the work embodied these ideas, that is the earthly, physical, bodily and material relations of consumption and its effects on the environs.

For example for Come Outside we took 25 people on a 2km bike ride in the city. Each bike was augmented with a battery, when the ride was completed, we joined the batteries together and attempted to boil the water for one cup of tea, while delivering a performative lecture on energy transfer under a tree. The Listening Chair simply used a mic to pick up surrounding urban sound at the level of a bat for example, and then transduced this into a range that humans could ‘hear’ like a bat.

I’ve also been interested in the effect of what is defined as noise pollution on animal life and this got extended through research I was carrying out in Berlin between 2014-2016, on how artists (such as Mario De Vega, Martin Howse, Christina Kubisch) are making the human made electromagnetic spectrum (EM) in cities audible. This work led specifically to exploring the effect of EM increase on animal and wildlife.

While this research was developing, I was commissioned to make UNDER NEW MOONS, WE STAND STRONG (2016), which drew on the image of the snowy owl that went viral in 2016. Typically millions of pounds are spent trying to keep birds off such cameras. So there is a tension in this image, the symbol of the owl, celebrated versus the CCTV camera. The installation blows up the scale of the camera, accentuating the bird spikes as hostile architectures, which are designed to ward off birds, or anything that is disruptive to the commercial norm of the city. Low-profile solutions like ultraviolet gels are also used. Birds see in UV and so perceive the gel as a fire, which disrupts their flight patterns.

I’d argue such tactics are similar to what Rob Nixon refers to as forms of slow violence in that it’s not spectacular nor instantaneous but incremental, the effects of which are not necessarily immediate but take place over longer time frames.

Are You Still Watching (2016) extends UNDER NEW MOONS, WE STAND STRONG by contextualising the history of the CCTV camera, its a performative lecture/set design, which also pulls out some animal stories like the owl, or security person who did not want to take care of a dog, which lead to closed-circuits been used as an alternative.

AMHRAC (2018, pronounced arc, it’s the Irish for vision or sight) takes this notion of slow violence further, with the installation itself, taking the form of a totem pole and UV ‘screen’, as a way to imagine spaces of clearing, healing, protection and memory. This is currently developing long paths that look at the histories of animal rights and standing in the city.

Teresa Dillon with Kathy Hinde, The Listening Chair, 2007

Teresa Dillon with Kathy Hinde, The Listening Chair, 2007

Teresa Dillon, Come Outside, 2006

Teresa Dillon, Come Outside, 2006

Do you see any sign that technology and science are being used in a way that genuinely benefit other living species? On the one hand, it would look like a good idea because of the dramatic loss of biodiversity so we need to use any tool available to slow down this erosion of biodiversity. On the other, we might not want to trust the tendency to use technology to try and solve problems that have often been created by technology in the first place.

If we speak about technology broadly as a tool, then we could argue that one of its main uses has been to extract capital and this includes capital from non-human species. This is where the narrative has to change. Even when technology is used for the common good, which can encompass other species, the narrative tends to the anthropocentric. The origin of such thinking can be traced back to some of the first stories, we told ourselves like in the Bible where we proclaimed that ‘man’ has the ‘right’ to rule over “the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures” (Genesis 1:26). Contextualised in these anthropocentric ways, it becomes very difficult then to answer what is a ‘genuine’ benefit. Therefore there is a deprogramming and decolonisation of the mind and culture that has to happen, and is happening and many people are working on this, which includes bettering the conditions of species with and without tech intervention.

Teresa Dillon, MTCD – A Visual Anthology of My Machine Life, 2018

Your performance MTCD – A Visual Anthology of My Machine Life explores the machines that have shaped your “technological know-how and imagination.” Could you explain us what happens over the course of the performance?

Yeah sure, I trace my cyborg life – starting for example with when I was born and placed in an incubator. I spent the first six days of my life in this machine and this is where the story starts. The script which I wrote is approx., 45 mins long, I inhabit the space of the story teller and its intended to be entertaining and goes through for example – the first time I ‘saw’ and ‘used’ the Internet, ICQ, bought a mobile phone, put on a VR head set, shook hands with a robot. I also give some social context or name people who have been instrumental or key to the moment. So the narrative is tech driven but links to people and place. I have created a simple stage design, some noise feedback and worked with the visual artist Luke Bennett (transforma) on the current irritation of images, which are like a triptych that bounce between loops of visual feedback, to photos, comic cut outs, etc, which augment the script. This summer, I’m working to further developing set design, as I will be performing it in Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Arts, Ljubljana, on 25th and 26th August.

I imagine that although MTCD talks about computers and other engineered devices, it must have a very intimate component. How much of your private life do you think you are revealing with that performance? And conversely, how much in the performance reflects the direct experiences of the public?

It’s revealing too a point about my personal life and perhaps one could infer many other things from it but in trying to keep faithful to a certain track, which describes the encounter with the tech – e.g., what it felt like to touch, what I sensually remembered, who was around when the encounter happened, where was it situated. This allows, I hope for some balance, without it falling down some nostalgic or narcissistic hole. In keeping to specific details, I would hope that some form of extrapolation can occur that allows the audience to locate themselves in the narrative – oh where was I then; or oh yeah, I remember that…. and to make connects.

Some of the public feedback to date has been interesting, people connecting to the story and resonating with parts of it. I am aware of my privilege but I was particularly moved when some young women spoke to me several months after seeing the performance at transmediale 2018 and shared not just how it made media archaeology feel alive for them. It opened up a conversation about our individual and collective ‘she-tories’ and women’s position and representation in media and tech. Basically, the 2017 story connects to how the first sex robot brothels were opened in Glasgow and Barcelona, with robot names like ‘Frigid Farrah’. Farrah is an Arabic name meaning ‘happy, joyful’, I trust, I don’t have to explain what is at play here with the selection of such a name, alongside the connotations of been frigid. Farrah is marketed as been shy and reserved with ‘personality settings’ so you can essentially tweak her level of submission. Between this and the release and pretty fast take down of Microsoft’s Tay, AI chatbot in 2016 and the Foundation for Responsible Robotics report on Our Sexual Future with Robots also released in 2017, which notes how sex robots are mainly gendered as female models with pornographic bodies. These ‘inventions’ and reports mean we are in the midst of a whole ‘new’ set of values, assumptions and possibilities, that will fundamentally shift how we sensually and sexually engage with each other, which opens up a whole other set of questions.

Sorry for a question that will probably make me look silly but what does MTCD stand for exactly?

MTCD is basically my full name in its initial form but I like the way, it also sounds like ‘empty CD’ and looks it might be an acronym.

Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, 2016. Image credit: Fraser Denholm

Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, 2016. Image credit: Yvi Philipp

I love that you sometimes use super low-tech or no-tech materials (like cardboard) to comment on technology. Is that a conscious strategy?

Yes completely. I ‘grew up’ somewhat in the tradition of performance and live art, where for some documenting work was not considered appropriate, as performance is live, it happens in the moment, creating an artefact therefore was not in keeping with the medium. Of course the latter leads to questions of intention and economies but this temporal constraint really appeals to me, as does the affect that post a performance not much is left, aside from these energetic scars in the atmospheres so to speak. So when I found myself working more with objects, it seemed natural when coming from this background that I worked with leftover, discarded material, stuff found on the street that could disappear easily and be turned into material for lighting a fire if needed.

You are the principal investigator at Repair Acts. It is easy imagine what a hacker, an environmentalist or an engineer might bring to the culture of caring, repairing and maintaining. How about the artist then? What can an artistic perspective bring when it comes to stimulating that same culture?

Is it easy to imagine (*/*) or is this the provocation? I mean hacking and engineering are often exploiting the weakness, which is already seeking out the vulnerability and this may not automatically lead to care, particularly if we think how ethics and responsibility have not necessarily been central to the education or training of these professional practices.

More specifically when speaking to artistic practices, I often reference Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Maintenance Art from 1969, which for me is a pivotal reference here, Laderman Ukeles, refers to two instincts the death and life instinct, she associates the death instinct to separation, individuality, ‘following one’s own path to death’; the life instinct is about unification, the eternal return, maintenance. Development and progression is linked to the death instinct the continual need for the new; maintenance, care and repair is linked to the life system, it’s the boring everyday stuff we need to do to keep the ‘things alive’. I’ve written a short piece for the Screen City Journal titled “Working the Break Point: Maintenance, Repair and Failure in Art” (2017) which goes some way to addressing your question, starting with Laderman Ukeles and linking her work to studies in repair from sociology, geography and other disciplines; and to the work of other artists working in the fields of glitch art, and on topics relating to planned obsoletism, systems esthetics and so forth. Artistic perspectives have lots then to bring to the table when it comes to repair cultures and their associated forms of attention, such as care, maintenance and recuperation. Repair Acts was a first step in bringing together different people, their skills and disciplinary knowledge’s together on the topic. The project is ongoing with collaborators and collaborations forming in various countries, so more will be happening in this space. The most recent of which has been the completion of a mapping exercise called “My Square Mile”, which explores changes in businesses registered as carrying out repairs between 1938-2018 in a square mile of around my neighbourhood in the UK, we will now be going forward with this in other cities. A square mile is a good lens through which to observe changes, the research also explores the visual identities associated with repair practices.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance, 1973. Photo: Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (via)

There seems to be a growing interest in repairing and taking care of our objects, whether they are electronics or items of clothing. Do you see the industry pushing back against it or are they trying to adapt and accommodate our growing concerns about waste and consumerism?

Phew have you got some hours ☺ Major shifts are simultaneously occurring, on one hand we have the Ecodesign Directive, which recently pushed through legislation that will kick off in 2021 and require manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers, televisions, lights and fridges to make their products easier to repair. You have organisations like Restart in London, who are championing policy change and repair parties; iFixit, in the US established in 2003, they have been publishing manuals on how to repair everyday consumer items and produced the Repair Manifesto; on a corporate level, Patagonia consider repair as central to the brand identity and declare repair as a radical act.

When taken seriously repair pushes the question of how we make things in the first instance further up the production chain and demands we make better quality, open products from the start, rather than waiting to recycle or deal with an objects end of life, when it is in a more wasted state.

Across the US, since 2013 The Repair Association has been working on state and federal legislation. So all this is happening but it will be interesting to see when and where this legislation actually hits practice. As you note there is lots of industry kick back, with Apple, John Deere the tractor manufacturer and others finding loops holes, resisting and going in the opposition direction. Essentially they know how necessary and economically viable repair is and yet they want to not just control this market by locking out third parties, but they also want to lock us down into product cycles by gluing, screwing, scaling down parts, bumping you off software, so that objects cannot be repaired or become redundant. If we are to hit UN sustainability goals relating to responsible consumption and production by 2030 then it’s difficult to see how without some serious enforcement, such changes in practices can happen. In response to this creative work arounds will and are always emerging, as will new black markets, growing pressures, green workers movements and changes in practices and politics. All these elements play into this and so when you speak about adapts and accommodations it’s a very complex, involving diverse global flows and relations that become sited in for example laws, standards, scrap yards and workbenches and the square mile around your home and studio.

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

Sure! Some immediate stuff happening over this summer, which relates to all the above includes: Formats of Care with my colleagues in Soft Agency at Floating University, Berlin, 13-16 June 2019; NØ SCHOOL, International Summer School, Nevers, France, 1-14 July 2019 and the MTCD performance at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Arts, Ljubljana, 29-30 Aug 2019. I’ve also got some stuff cooking with artists Joana Moll and Jana Barthel and there are some publications coming out (hopefully soon), including ‘Listening Around: Sonic Extractions of the Electromagnetic Spectrum’ in the Journal of Sonic Studies and with colleagues from the University of the West of England, a paper titled ‘Interspecies Urban Planning, Reimagining City Infrastructures with Slime Mould’, which will be in an edited collection of works by Andrew Adamatzky titled Slime Mould in Arts and Architecture (River Publishers.)

Thanks Teresa!

An interview with Swaantje Güntzel, the artist who throws plastic trash back into our faces

According to the World Bank‘s latest estimates, the world generates (and often poorly manages) 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, 12 percent of it being plastic. A third of that plastic finds its way into fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans.

Plastic debris now aggregates in gigantic floating landfills in oceans and endangers wildlife. Turtles ingest plastic bags and balloons, tiny fragments carpet the sea bed while chemical additives used in plastics even ends up in birds’ eggs in High Arctic. We’ve all read about this kind of stories, just as we’ve heard about the small gestures we should adopt to curb plastic waste. Yet, the growth of the plastic tide looks unstoppable.

Swaantje Güntzel, Hotel Pool, Intervention, 2016. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Portrait. Photo by Scheibe & Güntzel

Swaantje Güntzel, an artist with a background in Anthropology, has long been investigating our conflicted relationship with waste. Her work forces us to confront the dramatic consequences that trash pollution is having all over the world, from our city streets to the wildlife living at the other end of the world. Using aesthetics, provocation and humour, she lays bare the interdependence between our daily consumer choices, tepid reactions to environmental urgencies and fragile ecosystems.

Her strategies to spur us into action are many. She exhibits porcelains, photos, embroideries and sculptures inside galleries of course. But she also goes into the streets and infuriates passersby with her public performances. Some of her interventions involve the conspicuous “relocation” in touristic areas and fjords of trash dumped by absent-minded citizens. Others see her placing underneath public park benches sound devices playing a series of sounds generated by humans underwater, the kind of noises we never talk about but that nevertheless deeply disturbs wildlife swimming and living in the North and Baltic Sea, Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.

Swaantje Güntzel, Offshore (detail), 2015, sound intervention, ARTweek Aabenraa, Denmark, Rosegarden

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Many of her works involve collaborations. Often with artist Jan Philip Scheibe but also with activists, researchers or even employees in a recycling plant. She lent some of her ideas and talent to environmental organizations such as Ocean Now in order to create campaigns that show her own face (and even, in the last iteration of the campaign, the faces of famous German public figures) covered in microplastics collected on beaches across the world. She also regularly collaborates with scientists in order to ground her artworks in robust facts or get help gathering plastic toys trapped inside the digestive system of sea birds. Last year, she even spent a couple of weeks on the huge scrapyard near Stuttgart to understand the whole process that keeps raw materials inside a closed recycling loop.

Ocean Now is currently using Swaantje Güntzel’s artwork “Microplastics II” for its In Your Face project, part of their campaign “Microplastics in Cosmetics and Cleaning Products”. Photo by Helen Schroeter

Swaantje Güntzel, MIKROPLASTIK II, 2016. Photo: Henriette Pogoda

I discovered her practice through the artworks series that explores the plastic invasion of our daily lives and oceans but our online discussions also brought us to discuss excavator choreographies on scrapyards and how to stay sane when the world around you is sinking under piles of garbage.

Swaantje Guntzel & Jan Philip Scheibe, PLASTISPHERE/Promenade Thessaloniki Performance, 17 March 2016, Thessaloniki, Greece

Hi Swaantje! I was very moved by PLASTISPHERE/Promenade Thessaloniki when I first read about it. It makes visible, in the most shocking way, how careless we are in our daily life when it comes to plastic trash, even when we are in the proximity of the sea or of a park. And even though we’re all aware of the problem by now. How did passersby react to your gestures of throwing plastic back into the urban environment? Did they get angry at you?

What you see in the video is not the whole truth because it was impossible to cover every reaction. In performance art you have to decide whether you focus on the performance or on the documentation because as soon as people see there’s someone filming or taking pictures around, they immediately think this is not serious and will refrain from intervening. We thus had to ask the filmmaker to stay away and try to be invisible as much as he could. Several moments in the performance were even stronger than the ones you can see in the video. For example, when we started the performance, after some 10 meters as I had just begun to throw out the garbage, a guy on a bike stopped and spat at me. His spit was all over my dress. He didn’t even ask what was going on. Further on, we had people yelling and shouting at us. The old woman in the video wasn’t just slapping me, she was hitting me hard. And she wasn’t the only one. There’s also this guy at the end of the video whom we later discovered was part of far right group The Golden Dawn. If it hadn’t been for the curator who was running behind and trying to explain what we were doing, I think he would have beaten us up.

Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Promenade, 2016, Thessaloniki. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Collecting garbage at Galerius Palace Thessaloniki, 2016. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Did people get angry like this everywhere you presented the performance?

Yes, people react that way pretty much everywhere we go.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why people get so worked up. They don’t get angry when they see people dropping garbage or when they see trash in the street. They only get so worked up when they see somebody doing it in such a condensed and obvious way. I find it a bit hypocritical.

The funny thing is that I’m only relocating that garbage. We always start by picking up the trash we find laying around the city. In the case of Thessaloniki, we picked it up at a nearby archaeological site. The site is inside the pedestrian area. You can get a ticket, enter and visit the site. Yet, people who walk by still throw their wrappings onto the archaeological site.

In the first performance, I was relocating the actual garbage within the site, picking it up in one place and throwing it in another. After that, we took that garbage and moved it three blocks away, on the promenade. Only this time, we were throwing the garbage while riding some kind of bike for tourists.

I think that the outraged reaction has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t like to be confronted with garbage so blatantly. In a way, they know it’s theirs and it’s their responsibility. No matter where you are and who you ask, people seem to believe that garbage in public space is not their fault, that it’s the others who are to blame for its presence.

Public space is a collective space. We should all be responsible for it. Unfortunately, people just don’t want to take responsibility, neither in a personal sense nor in a collective sense. A performance in which we bring the garbage back to them is like a knock on their doors.

On a more abstract level, it has a lot to do with the walls we create around consumerism and in a broader sense around capitalism. When you start to talk about waste and plastic pollution, you have to question your way of life, the whole system of capitalism as well as us, humans. Of course, that’s probably not what is crossing these people’s mind immediately but I think it all comes together to create this strong reaction. And then on a more personal level, I think that a lot of people might be compensating for their daily lack of responsibility towards waste by acting in such a strong way and pretending they care. Because I throw garbage around in such an outrageous way, they suddenly take the role of the “clean up police”. It’s a bit like when you interview passersby on animal well-being, everyone will tell you that of course they’d be ready to pay a bit more if they were sure animals are treated better. The choices they make in their daily life, however, do not necessarily reflect what they say when they are interviewed in public. My work highlights this contradiction between what you do or say in public and what your private behaviour might be.

Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Galerius Palace Thessaloniki, 2016. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Do you think part of people’s anger can be explained by the fact that you look like a tourist on that touristic vehicle?

I don’t think so. I was acting in such an exaggerated way, throwing garbage around in broad daylight, in a popular area of the city and dressed in such an extravagant way. It was impossible to take me seriously. It was all staged to look like a performance or maybe an activist action to raise awareness around the waste problem.

Swaantje Güntzel, Portrait at Kaatsch. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Last year you collaborated with the German recycling company Schrott- und Metallhandel M. Kaatsch GmbH in Plochingen as part of the Art Festival DREHMOMENT of KulturRegion Stuttgart in order to follow the route taken by the recycled objects, looking in particular at “the physical and logistical effort required to keep raw materials in a closed cycle of recyclable materials.” I found it interesting that you seemed to have established some relationship with the people working in this recycling company. What role played the relationship you established with them? How long did you stay there by the way?

I produced the actual work in two weeks but the whole relationship started long before that, in January, when we had the first encounter. That’s when I was presented to the company and they had to decide whether or not they wanted to work with me. They were very afraid I would run around their company looking for problems in the way they work. On the one hand, their fear was understandable because so far I had only focused on the damages of consumerism and not on the solutions to it. It took them 3 months to think about it. And it took me a lunch and a lot of wine with the boss of the company to convince him to say yes to the collaboration. But the moment we started to work together, they were incredible. They opened every door for me, they let me do everything I had dreamt of.

The work with the excavator that you can see in the short movie was something I had dreamt of. I never thought they’d allowed me to do that because that would mean slowing down the work process, it would be complicated, require a lot of men power and they’d lose money. And yet, the moment I told them about my idea, they reacted very fast and made it happen.

During my research and over the course of these two weeks last summer when I tried to realise most of the works, I found it very easy to talk to everyone. Later in October, for the opening of the resulting show, I had a conversation with one of the people working there and I almost apologised for being this woman crawling everywhere on their working space, always in the way of the workers on this big scrapyard. But the worker said “No! Not at all! All the women who work here would never come on the scrapyard, they prefer to stay inside the offices but you looked so interested in our work, trying to understand, getting yourself dirty, etc. That was actually very flattering for us.” The people who are in charge of the place also understood the potential of this synergy between the artist and the company and how something completely new could emerge from it. I had warned them that I wanted total freedom, that they couldn’t interfere with the content (unless it was for technical reason) but we never had any situation of tension.

I saw the power of recycling our waste, of keeping the resources in this loop and not lose any of it. It’s the future. They always say that recycling is the 7th resource of the world. Recycling will become an essential resource. Without it, we’ll destroy the planet even sooner than expected.

For me it was a new experience. For once, everybody was so happy about my performances! Although in the end, I think that people getting angry and me being beaten up is part of the solution. It’s one of the puzzle pieces in trying to understand that we are on the wrong track.

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, 2018. Photo by Tobias Hübel

One of the works in the LOOPS series intrigued me. The triptych titled LOOPS / LH 150 E. Did the excavator create these marks?

Yes, you can see the process in the video.

My concept was that I wanted to visualise how much power is in the logistics and in the physical effort you need to keep resources in recycling loops. While doing my research on the scrapyard, I saw the company´s excavators picking up what seemed to be big bundles of steel wires that look like balls of wool but weight tons. The excavators grab these bundles and use them to move the trash from one side to the other. When they’ve finished the work, they use the bundles to clean the spot where they were working. When you see 3 or 4 of these excavators doing it at the same time, it looks like a ballet or a choreography. You can also sense the power. You feel the soil moving and shaking, the air getting very hot and the loud noise. It’s like you’re in a parallel world. I wanted to visualize these movements so I asked if i could drip these bundles into red paint, put the three steel plates on the ground and thus capture these moments.

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, setting the plates, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, steel wire 2, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, steel wire 1, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, finished plates, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

You hold a Masters Degree in Anthropology. How does that background inform and influence your artistic practice?

At the beginning, I didn’t think it would influence my practice. I was actually hiding that fact. When I started studying art, I was already older than the others and I was struggling to find my spot. Especially because I was working on ecological topics that no one really likes. In the first years, I had a hard time defining myself. After 5 or 7 years however, I started to realise that the way I look at the world, the way I work, the way I observe is so linked to my studies in Anthropology that I couldn’t deny this background anymore and that it played a huge part in my artistic practice.

Besides, I have this project series with my boyfriend Jan Philip Scheibe, who is also an artists, where we try and analyse with the instruments from contemporary art how the interaction between people and their surrounding landscape is still visible and how this defined their culture and understanding of nature. How these people trying to be nourished by the surrounding landscape have interacted with it over the course of the past several hundred years. These projects require a lot of research and I’m the one in charge of that before we actually start the work. My technique, my way of researching are linked to that understanding of the world as an anthropologist.

When I work on plastic pollution, I collaborate with many scientists, with marine biologists, with physicians, experts in acoustics, etc. Without this academic background, I would have hesitated a lot before before approaching them and asking them if they were open to collaborating with me.

Swaantje Güntzel, Stomach Contents, 2010. Photo: Swaantje Güntzel

Swaantje Güntzel, Box Set XL, 2018, plastics, wood, glass, 41,3 x 31,5 cm. Photo Tobias Hübel

Swaantje Güntzel, Cigarette lighter R, 2014. Photo by Anne Sundermann

How did you work with these other scientists? Do they play only a consulting role or a more active one?

It depends very much on the project. For example, I worked with marine biologist Dr. Cynthia Vanderlip on a series of projects in which she played an active role. She is the head of Kure Atoll Conservancy, a seabird sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean. She was one of the first scientists I approached in my artistic career because I needed items that had been swallowed by birds in the ocean. She works a lot with Laysan albatrosses that have ingested plastic objects and she agreed in 2009 to provide me with all the materials I needed. She collects the pieces found inside dead birds on that remote Atoll. Now she can’t go to the Atoll anymore but she still directs the team over there and asks them to keep on collecting the objects for me. She answers any question I might have. Her role is thus very active.

With other scientists, it’s more about getting answers to very specific questions.

Last year was the first time I dared to present my work in a scientific conference on microplastics. I had no idea if they would appreciate this kind of presentation or even if it made sense for them to see how artists are working on this topic. From the interested reactions I got after the presentation, it looks like it was the right thing to do.

You’ve worked on the topic of plastic pollution for many years now. How do you see the discussions evolving? It seems to me that on the one hand, awareness has been raised years ago. On the other hand, we’re not making much progress in controlling plastic waste, are we?

I started to work on that topic in a time when nobody really knew about plastic pollution or about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at all in Germany. There were a few scientists in the States who had just named the problem but there was nothing in terms in public awareness. I was so naive at the time. I thought that if I started making the problem visible, an understanding would grow and that over time we would take action. However, I could see that time was passing and that my work kept being labelled in curatorial texts or critical reviews as “raising awareness”. Last year, I started wondering how long we’d need to “raise awareness” before we decide to actually do something. Five years ago or so, people who are in charge started to advise the public on how we could change habits, use as little plastic as possible or put pressure on politicians and on the industry to see changes emerge. But we’ve been stuck in this same movement for such a long time. By now, I think that each of us is aware of the problem and we all agree that plastic doesn’t belong in the environment. And yet, not much has changed.

At the opening of my exhibitions, people view me as a kind of priest and confess their plastic sins to me. They would tell me that they understand the importance of my work, that it’s essential that someone makes the effort but then they’d try and explain me why they can’t make an effort themselves: it takes too much time and too much energy, it’s the industry that should act, people at the other end of the world do worse anyway, etc. Classic whataboutism that doesn’t help us move forward.

It’s the same with climate change, we know we have to do something and yet we stand there. We prefer to blame others, keep our heads in the sand and prolong our way of life.

Swaantje Güntzel, Blowback II, 2015. Photo by HC Gabelgaard

What keeps you motivated and sane? because sometimes when I read how turtles choke on plastic, how microplastics ends up in the food chain and more generally how biodiversity is dying and the climate is warming up, i despair and want to forget about all that.

You have to look at my biography to answer that one. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, a time characterised by what some like to call “eco-pessimism”. As a kid, I was traumatised by what we were doing to this planet. I was a little girl asking adults “Now that you know what we did to the environment, why don’t you change your behaviour?” And I would always get an answer which meaning can be summed up in: “As adults we screwed it up. Now it’s on you to find a solution and save the world.” I was old enough to take their words seriously and I was depressed about the challenge I had to face: saving the world pretty much on my own.

Today’s young people feel the same but at least they have social media to connect and combine their energy and knowledge and turn it into something as powerful as the Fridays for Future movement. Back then however, it wasn’t the case and it’s only recently that I discovered that many people my age had experienced the same depression and sense of helplessness. We did what we could of course. For example, going from door to door asking people to sign petitions against seal slaughtering or collecting money for the local pet shelter. But we felt alone and under so much pressure. At some point, I decided I would leave aside those topics for a while. I went abroad and studied anthropology. Over time however, I realised that both the environmental issues and art were so deep inside of me that I couldn´t ignore it anymore. I decided that art could help me put up with the pressure and feel like I was doing something. It’s not on the level of activism where you have to dedicate your energy to a cause every day, you have to fight and you live with the constant frustration.
Art would allow me to do something but it wouldn’t consume me as much. It’s the only way I found to deal with this global insanity without completely losing it myself.

Thanks Swaantje!

Eric D. Clark, Music producer, DJ. A collaboration between Ocean Now and Swaantje Güntzel’s artwork “Microplastics II” for the In Your Face project, part of Ocean Now campaign “Microplastics in Cosmetics and Cleaning Products” Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp

Swaantje Güntzel has a few exhibitions coming up: she’ll be participating to the Deep Sea group show opening at Ystads Konstmuseum, Sweden, on 1 June 2019. This Summer her work is part of the touring exhibition Examples to follow! Expeditions in aesthetics and sustainability in Erfurt, Germany. She is also preparing, together with Jan Philip Scheibe the work Preserved/Grünkohl opening at DA Kloster Gravenhorst, Germany on 12 July 2019. And of course, her collaboration with Ocean Now is currently taking the streets of Berlin to inform passersby about the urgent need to ban microplastics in cosmetics and cleaning products.

The Street. Where the World Is Made

A week ago, i was in Rome to visit the spectacular Centrale Montemartini (a former power plant converted into a museum for Ancient Rome sculptures) and an exhibition at MAXXI about artistic imaginaries in the age of AI. That one had a couple of very good works (by Nathaniel Mellors & Erkka Nissinen, Zach Blas, Trevor Paglen and others who never disappoint.) The exhibition closed a few days ago but the guide is available as a free PDF if you’re curious about the show.

Halil Altındere, Wonderland, 2013

Ugo La Pietra, Sistema disequilibrante, il Commutatore, 1970

Fortunately, MAXXI has another exhibition to explore if ever you’re in the neighbourhood. It’s not only packed with excellent, provoking works, it also remains open until the end of April. The Street. Where the World Is Made shows the work of artists who look for a public in the streets, not within the sterile walls of a museum or art gallery. They use public space as an environment to exchange, agitate, experiment, debate and set off the unexpected.

The exhibition is organised according to themes: public actions, daily life, politics, the community, innovation, the role of the institution and of course many of the works can easily fit into several categories.

The exhibition is massive. There are over 200 works. Many of them videos which means that i ended up spending a whole afternoon inside the museum. It’s also very noisy and chaotic. Like a busy urban street.

The Street. Where the World is Made/La Strada. Dove si crea il mondo. Exhibition view. ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Ruscio, courtesy Fondazione MAXXI

Abraham Cruzvillegas, The Simultaneous Promise, 2011

Instead of writing down my usual ultra-verbose review, i’m going to quick fire some of the videos i really enjoyed during my visit. I’m not keen on being bombarded with videos (to say the least) so the ones below are short and quite amusing:

Starting with the one that made me laugh out loud, especially after i had read the description.

During months, Iván Argote walked around New York city looking for unattended police cars. As soon as he found one, he hid behind it and shaked it while his camera was rolling. It looks like some sex or violent action is taking place inside the vehicle. During the making of the film he was stopped three times and managed to not get arrested by acting as a crazy french tourist.

Iván Argote, The beginning of something, 2011

Speaking of crazy. Or at least very bold… Marcela Armas walked at a leisurely pace in the middle of urban traffic in Mexico city wearing a kit with 7 different car horns and other automotive sounds. She used a control on the arm to activate the devices and establish communication with the drivers. Some drivers honked to express their great perplexity, others to participate in a collective concert.

Occupation is an action arising from the occupation of space for car traffic, as a reflection about humans as carriers and noise generators, but also, about the loss of sovereignty of human body in times of consumption society and exacerbated urban growth.

Marcela Armas, Ocupación/Occupation, 2007

Marcela Armas, Ocupación/Occupation, 2007

Marcela Armas, Ocupación/Occupation, 2007

Say what you want about Santiago Sierra, he certainly knows how to get people’s attention. The video he made together with Jorge Galindo was one of the very first i saw upon entering the gigantic exhibition. It could have been swamped by the dozens of video works i saw during my visit. But it did remain in my mind the whole afternoon.

In 2012, one of the worst years for the economic crisis in Spain, Sierra organized a motorcade of seven black Mercedes-Benz sedans topped with upside-down monumental portraits of King Juan Carlos I and the six prime ministers of the Spanish democracy by painter Jorge Galindo. Bystanders, taken by surprise, posted cellphone documentation as the procession was making its way along the Gran Vía of Madrid.

The soundtrack of the video is “Warszawianka“, a song used as an anthem by Polish workers in 1905 and adopted by populist movements worldwide.

Jorge Galindo and Santiago Sierra, Los Encargados (Those in Charge), Gran Vía, Madrid, 15 Agosto 2012

In Recife (Brazil), rural traditions are often at odds with the city status as a booming industrial center and film capital. Hearing that the local government was planning to ban animals hauling carts from the streets, Jonathas De Andrade decided to organize a horse-drawn cart race in the city center. The artist was only able to stage the race by asking the authorities for a permit to make a movie. The horse owners, however, were invited to participate in a real horse race. The video features an aboiador—a singer from the countryside who improvises verses and rhymes and talks (in what seems to me the most beautiful language in the world) about the challenges of country living, the dehumanizing urban conditions, marginalization, etc.

Jonathas de Andrade, O levante (fragmento) – The Uprising (excerpt), 2012-2013

Future past perfect pt. 03 (u_08-1) was inspired by a fascination for automation processes as well as Carsten Nicolai‘s work on codes and grids. A man stops his van next to a row of vending machines. He inserts a coin, but instead of the usual procedure, the machine starts performing its own peculiar performance on the notes of one of the artist’s compositions.

Carsten Nicolai, Future past perfect pt. 03 (u_08-1), 2009

Not much is happening in Eric Baudelaire‘s video. Yet, there is something hypnotizing in the movements of the main protagonist and in the uneventful life that surrounds him. The action takes place on a Paris metro platform where a billposter covers an advertising billboard with a sequence of images that depict a car parked on a Parisian street: it bursts into flames, is swallowed up in smoke and then is reduced to a charred carcass. The laborious method of gluing the posters takes 72 minutes in total, a slow pace that contrasts with the assault of violent images that news media typically serve us.

Eric Baudelaire, Sugar Water, 2007

Eric Baudelaire, Sugar Water, 2007

HeHe set a remote controlled toy car through the streets of New York emitting coloured smoke clouds. The tiny vehicle made more conspicuous a pollution passersby have long stopped paying attention to.

Hehe, Toy Emissions (my Friends All Drive Porsches), 2007

Paradox of Praxis #5 is part of a series of performances in which Francis Alÿs undertakes seemingly futile tasks or labors. The most famous one is Paradox of Praxis #1 (1997) in which the artist pushed a massive block of ice throughout the streets of Mexico City until it completely melted. In this video, however, Alÿs kicks a ball of fire during the night in Ciudad Juárez. As you follow his path, you catch glimpses of a urban fabric in crisis.

Francis Alÿs, Paradox of Praxis #5, 2013

In 1995, Lin Yilin quietly built, dismantled and moved a brick wall from one side of a busy road to another. The performance, which took place in Guangzhou, forced drivers to swerve around him. His long and laborious performance transformed a stable wall into a roving one, creating moments of pause in the turbulent flow of urban life.

Lin Yilin, Safely Maneuvering across The Road, 1995

Halil Altındere’s film Wonderland documents the anger and frustration of a group of youths from the Sulukule neighborhood of Istanbul, home to Roma communities whose houses were destroyed as part of an “urban renewal” development project. Shot as a music video, Wonderland follows the young men of the hip-hop group Tahribad-ı isyan (Rebellion of Destruction) as they rap about inequality and gentrification. They express their exasperation through derelict streets, beat up a security guard and destroy symbols of the redevelopment project. The film was a run-up to the Gezi Park demonstrations, where people protested against the plan to replace Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spaces in the center of the European side of Istanbul, with a shopping center and luxury apartments.

Halil Altındere, Wonderland, 2013

All kinds of objects are being thrown from one end of a road to the other: rocks, boots, helmets, broom sticks, chairs, a wheel, tires, barrels, etc. Fumes from tear gas start to float over the scene. When the one-sided riot stops, the street appears clear again and then objects are being thrown from the other side of the street this time. It’s beautiful, dangerous, poetic. It happened during our century and all the centuries before that.

Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado, O Século (The Century) – Brasil, 2011

That’s it for my video tour. Here’s more images and works from the show:

Anna Scalfi, Untitled 2005 (Green Woman on the Traffic Light), 2005

In an 8-hour long action, Anna Scalfi was granted the permission to climb up and change the contours of the figure on the pedestrian traffic lights from male to female in the historical centre of Rovereto.

Raphaël Zarka, Riding Modern Art. Sculpture: Ulrich Rückriem, Untitled (four wedges), 1992. Skater: Eli Reed. Photograph: Jonathan Mehring

Raphaël Zarka, Riding Modern Art. Sculpture Andy Athanassoglou, Trio. Skater: Jan Solenthaler. Photographer: Alan Maag

When he was at art school in the late 80’s, Raphaël Zarka realized that skateboarding was guiding his perception of forms, volumes and materials. The black and white photographs from his series “Riding Modern Art” are drawn from skateboarding magazines. Each of them shows how skaters are giving a new dimension to the abstract and geometric forms of modern sculptures installed in the public space. Since it started in 2007, the series has become a huge participative work to which several photographers and skaters contribute. I found it interesting to read that when Editions B42 published a book about the work, ten images had to be removed from this collection, “as sculptors have refused to see their artwork reproduced. The spaces dedicated to those photographs remain purposely empty.”

Allora & Calzadilla, There’s More than One Way to Skin a Sheep, 2007

In There’s More than One Way to Skin a Sheep, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla evoke the coexistence of modern technology and traditional instruments such as the tulum, an early form of bagpipe from Turkey. The video shows a cyclist repurposing the traditional musical instrument to inflate a punctured tire on the streets of Istanbul, creating a noisy disruption in the urban landscape. The cultural object, used as an implement to address a modern malfunction, represents a resourceful adaptation to today’s world.

Lin Yilin, Golden Town, 2011

Halil Altındere, MOBESE (Gold Camera), 2011

Andrea Salvino, Troppo presto troppo tardi, 2015

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, «Big Donut Drive-in», Los Angeles, ca. 1970. From the “Las Vegas Studio”-project curated by Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, The Strip seen from the desert, with Denise Scott Brown in the foreground, Las Vegas 1966. Photo: Robert Venturi. From the “Las Vegas Studio”-project curated by Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, Advertising signs on the Strip, 1968. From the “Las Vegas Studio”-project curated by Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, «The Big Duck», shop in the shape of a duck on the highway on Long Island, Flanders, New York, ca. 1970. From the “Las Vegas Studio”-project curated by Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli

Martin Creed, Work No. 1701, 2013

Martin Creed, YOU RETURN Work No. 1701, 2013

Martin Creed, What the Fuck Am I Doing, 2017

Pedro Reyes, Ciclomóvil, 2007

Patrick Tuttofuoco, Velodream (Mattia), 2001

Patrick Tuttofuoco, Velodream (Riccardo), 2001

Cao Fei, Hip Hop Fukuoka, 2005

Monica Bonvicini, Don’t Miss a Sec’., 2004

Boa Mistura, Crossed Anamorphosis (detail), 2018

The Street. Where the World is Made/La Strada. Dove si crea il mondo. Exhibition view. ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Ruscio, courtesy Fondazione MAXXI

The Street. Where the World is Made/La Strada. Dove si crea il mondo. Exhibition view. ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Ruscio, courtesy Fondazione MAXXI

The Street. Where the World is Made/La Strada. Dove si crea il mondo. Exhibition view. ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Ruscio, courtesy Fondazione MAXXI

The Street. Where the World is Made/La Strada. Dove si crea il mondo was curated by Hou Hanru and the curatorial team of MAXXI. The show remains open until 28 April at MAXXI in Rome.

Making cheese from the black mould on your wall

Stachybotrys chartarum, aka black mould, is one of the nastiest guests you can find in your home. The microfungus grows inside damp buildings and produces toxic spores. Its presence in your home can affect your health and expose you to greater risks of suffering from respiratory problems, allergies or even immune system disorders.

The problem seems to be particularly common in London rented accommodations. Landlords are either too stingy or too sloppy to take the necessary measures to limit the moisture in the air. When they are not just plain greedy and let the flats deliberately rot so that tenants will move out and the property owner can renovate the building and turn it into lucrative Airbnb accommodations.

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Avril Corroon, a young artist currently pursuing a Masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths University, decided to give a pungent visibility to the problem of rogue landlords and poor living conditions in rented accommodation. She did so by making artisan cheeses using bacteria cultures collected directly from the mould growing in London housing. I wouldn’t eat the cheeses she makes but they look surprisingly convincing!

The project is called Spoiled Spores (at the moment.) Corroon’s social critique might be insalubrious but it is also one of those rare projects that manage to talk about gentrification and class divide with humour.

I got in touch with Avril and asked her to tell us more about her range of “sick building” cheeses:

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Hi Avril! I’ve never made cheese in my life. You made yours using bacteria cultures collected from the mould growing in London housing. How did you discover the existence of these bacteria and their suitability to make cheese?  

Neither had I before this. To make blue cheese you add penicillium roqueforti to your milk and rennet, so I wondered what would happen if I swapped the ‘good mould’ for ‘bad’ mould and if it’d make a black mouldy cheese? Or what a Camberwell Camembert would look like from damp mould grown in a flat in Camberwell in London?

I had no idea if the cheese would come out looking and smelling like cheese or if the new mould would cause it to fall apart. It turns out that it does look and smell like cheese but as for taste I don’t know, it’s definitely not fit for consumption.

I’ve been doing call outs online and using word of mouth to find people living with mould and then visiting to take samples to make an individual cheese.
 Another element to the project is filming the homes where the moulds come from and interviewing the participants about their lives and any health problems they might have living around black mould. Some of them said they had mild respiratory issues and many said they constantly have to ask the landlord to come and sort it after the mould reappears after cleaning and repainting.

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Of course, what i found most interesting about the project is that it is, if i understood correctly, a comment on the poor living conditions in rented accommodation. Could you elaborate on that?  

I had a lot of black mould growing in my last accommodation in Dublin and know many people living in damp housing managed by neglectful landlords. I wanted to make something that juxtaposed the mould, as a sign of neglected living conditions in rental property, with an artisan product like cheese, as a possible marker of gentrification.

Developers and city planners focus on areas, intentionally allowing them to become run down before pumping investment into recreating a new narrative of the area, as somewhere more attractive for middle and upper classes making it difficult for the community to sustain living there.

I hope that the work gives a sense of how interlinked and calculated disinvestment and investment is as a system and also gives the finger to private landlords for charging extortionate rental prices for poorly maintained flats and houses.

At the moment I’m being evicted from my rental accommodation in Elephant and Castle in South East London as developers are going to build luxury apartments. That whole area is under new urban development. Property developers Delancey have been given the go ahead by the council to take down the famous 75 year old Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre to make a ‘town centre’, but it’s already a centre for the traders and large multicultural community who go there. Up The Elephant campaigners are bidding to pose a legal challenge to drop the scheme, which is great.

I’m critical of how art institutions play a role in gentrification and want the work to address this too. In the work, I’m taking mould from people in bad living conditions and creating a high-end commodity out of this suffering as cheese, but then by giving it the status of art it then becomes a super commodity in the art gallery. I’m very interested in how the work touches these seemingly separate economies and how it can implicate a wider system than just the individual landlord. The cheese stink in the gallery and you can’t get away from the smell. It’s making an accusation there to question how art institutions function in the creation of inequalities, disinvestment and gentrification in areas.

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

The photo of the bedroom the mould came from doesn’t suggest “yummy! appetizing!” to me. How ready are people (and you!) to taste the cheese? Is it allowed to actually have people consume them or is there some Health and Safety issue that would prevent you from organising tasting sessions?  

At first some people have really wanted to try it before seeing the video footage of how they’re made. I have artisan style labels for each corresponding cheese, which includes on it the first name of the person who lives with the mould, the type of accommodation, and annual rent and location details in the ingredient list. It’s easy to not read the label in full, as much as we don’t read the ingredients on most packaging, so the cheese still retains a sort of sinister element to it. Authentic artisan cheeses that are expensive, strong smelling, especially the blue cheeses, don’t really seem like they should be edible anyway, but we’ve been assured that they are. If no one had told you that you can eat cheese with blue mould veined through out it, you wouldn’t put that in your mouth would you?

I like toeing between the lines of disgust my cheese looks no more suspicious than normal cheese, like a savory present waiting for the landlord.

Excerpt of Fresh Paint on The Walls, full duration 9min, 2016

How does the work fit into your own practice? Does it build upon some of your previous works? I’m thinking about Fresh Paint on the Walls which looks at the difficulty of living in the neoliberal city through the antics of an awful landlord who licks beige walls and covers his face in paint.

I make work, which uses my own surroundings or living and working conditions as a starting point and then re-present them in an exaggerated manner with a satirical narrative in video or through interventionist actions in live performance.

In Fresh Paint on The Walls, the archetype of the monstrous Landlord is obsessed with ingesting magnolia coloured paint, resulting in megalomaniac behavior and terrible spatial judgment, which causes him to charge extortionate rates for small rooms. The cheese work feels like a continuation from this work and shares some similar imagery such as eating from interior walls.

In some of my previous work, I outline a story with voice over narration, the cheese is more suggestive of a narrative instead. While I was making one of them I was reminded of Roald Dahl’s The Witches where all the witches have an AGM and plan a grand opening of sweet shops where they’ll poison all the children and turn them into mice. Except here, maybe it’s all the landlords who come to stuff their faces instead.

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores (installation view), 2019

Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

What’s next for the cheese? Was it a one off or are you planning to reproduce the cheese experiment in other settings?

At the moment I’m working on this project along with others towards my degree show for my masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths University. I’m making new cheeses, visiting homes, taking mould samples and filming homes from new people that I come into contact with.

I’d love to take the project further and travel with it to make further renditions that are area specific to where it’s exhibited, so that each place and the specificities to that local are examined. I’m also getting in touch with food labs to get an analysis of the cheese sample and its toxins.

Getting other expertise in to expand the work could produce interesting results, like getting a cheesemonger and a real estate agent together to assess the value of a mouldy house or one of my cheeses. I think there’s a lot of ways I can develop the work further.

Thanks Avril!

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.

The agony of a life without privacy. Or with too much of it. An interview with Mark Farid

Many artists and activists have worked on projects that denounce the loss of privacy online. Very few, however, have put their social, financial and mental well-being at risk in order to expose the damages of a carefree attitude towards our own digital footprint.

Mark Farid, Seeing I, ongoing

Mark Farid, Data Shadow, 2015

But Mark Farid did just that! Deeply convinced that “online privacy is the only right we have left”, the artist decided to give away his entire digital identity to anyone who’d want it. Back in 2015, he participated to a panel discussion entitled “Data Shadow: Anonymity is our only right, and that is why it must be destroyed” in Cambridge. After a presentation of his practice, Farid surprised the audience by displaying a document listing the login details of all his online accounts and inviting everyone to use them as they pleased. Within minutes, people he didn’t know had changed most of his passwords, from his online banking account to his Apple ID. The accounts were no longer his.

From that moment on, he embarked on a painful adventure: he lived with no digital footprint for 6 months, using multiple pay as you go phones, paying everything in cash, scrambling his IP addresses, etc. The experience was not only costly but it also made his social life ridiculously complicated.

After an experiment that suggested that Farid had something to hide, the artist went back to normal modern life, the one in which most of the exciting things you do is online and promptly turned into sets of data that both governments and corporations can snoop on.

Then came September 2016 when the artist decided time had come to further destroy his online privacy and demonstrate that he had nothing to hide. For a full month, he live streamed his digital footprint. The performance, titled Poisonous Antidote, involved exposing online and in a gallery in London all of his personal and professional emails, all his text messages, phone calls, Facebook Messenger, web browsing, Skype conversations, locations, Twitter and Instagram posts, as well as any photographs and videos. The work disclosed his interactions and daily life but it also questioned the assumption that you can fully comprehend a person through only their digital footprint.

Mark Farid, Data Shadow, 2015

I discovered Farid’s work at the Strasbourg Biennale of Contemporary Art, the first edition of an event that invites us to reflect on what it means to be a citizen in the age of hyper-connectivity. The biennale remains open until 3 March. I’d recommend you swing by the charming city to see the exhibition if you’re in the neighbourhood. If not, here’s a transcript of a conversation i had with Farid after i met him in Strasbourg. We talked about the density of our digital footprints, the mental pain of spending months off the digital grid, and his plan to spend 28 days wearing a VR headset to experience the life of another person.

Mark Farid, Poisonous Antidote exhibited at Gazelli Art House in 2016

Hi Mark! Recently, while I was recently visiting the Strasbourg Biennale, i saw the premiere of Poisonous Antidote, a film that you made in collaboration with film-maker Sophie le Roux to reflect on the whole performance. The press kit of the biennale mentions “there was no restriction on the content publicised”. But surely you did censor yourself sometimes, didn’t you?
So were there any self-restrictions?

There was absolutely a degree of self-censorship, and equally, there was absolutely an – arguably greater degree – of performing at the same time.

Poisonous Antidote had two sides to it for me, the first was for the audience: just how intimately you are able to comprehend a person – their humour, temperament and rationale – through only their digital footprint. When you listen to my phone calls with my dad, read my test messages with a girl I was seeing at the time, see what I was searching and where I have been going – very quickly, you really do start to get a very good idea of who I am.

The other side of it was more personal, it was for me to see to what degree knowing that everything I was doing was digitally documented forced me to see, and judge myself objectively. This of course resulted in self-censorship – limiting what I would search, what I would say to people, and most – how I would interact with people. I wouldn’t lose my temper, for example, except for once, at my dad, which is in the film.

It also resulted in ‘performing’ – I went on holiday with my dad for the first time in seven years during that month. I visited Leicester, where my parents live, three times that month, when normally I go back home once every three months. It also meant that I was going to lots of museums and galleries, going on walks and reading a broad range of things online instead of predominantly reading about football; I was trying to look like an interesting cool artist who does what a cultured artist should do.

Contrary to what I was expecting to do – which was to limit what i was doing – the performance actually opened up, and essentially forced me to do these activities, which I otherwise probably wouldn’t have done to the same degree, or at all.

Mark Farid, Poisonous Antidote exhibited at Gazelli Art House in 2016

Mark Farid, Poisonous Antidote exhibited at Gazelli Art House in 2016

Do you have any idea about the type of people who were watching the performance? Were they mostly friends who checked the website to support you? Or were they mostly complete strangers?

There was just over 32,000 views on the website during September 2016. The views have been from around the world but predominately came from Russia, USA and the UK. And obviously as well at Gazelli Art House, London, the gallery which funded and exhibited the project.

To date now, there have been 47,000 views on the website.

How about your friends and family? Did you make them aware that any interaction with you was being streamed online, for anyone to hear or read?

On the first day Poisonous Antidote started, I sent a message to all my contact (on my phone) to inform them that everything for the next month would be broadcast: emails, text messages, Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, and phone calls would be published online, in real-time, on Pretty much every time I was on the phone I would inform them at the beginning that the conversation was being broadcast, and if people started getting slightly too intimate with me, then I would also remind them of the situation.

There were three people who did had an issue with this and refused to talk to me for that month. But to my surprise, only three people! But many of my friends liked it and some had a bit of fun with it and started trolling me which annoyed me a little bit at the beginning, but I would have done exactly the same thing!

I’m curious about the people who didn’t want to engage at all with you during that month? Were they a bit older, from a generation generally viewed as being more protective of their privacy?

No, they were in their 20s and 30s. There was also the Director of arebyte Gallery in London who wasn’t too happy with our conversations being broadcast. Funnily, he’s one of the first phone calls in the film. The last one too. He didn’t like it but ultimately he had no choice but to get in contact with me as they’re funding my next project, Seeing I. But it nicely highlights that even if you want privacy, and you were to do everything within your means to ensure your privacy (he does not), other people’s indifference to data privacy will ultimately be your demise.

But really, most people didn’t care. And that’s something I see elsewhere in my work, which until very recently I was finding to be very surprising.

Mark Farid, Data Shadow, 2015

Mark Farid, Data Shadow, 2015

Poisonous Antidote was the third and final part of a series of projects, wasn’t it? Can you tell me more about the other parts?

To coincide with the first draft of the Investigatory Powers Bill (Nov 2015), the first part of this three part series was Data Shadow (2015) which was an interactive art installation commissioned by Collusion, in partnership with Arts Council England, the University of Cambridge and The Technology Partnership. Located in All Saints Gardens, Cambridge, all visitors were required to interact independently with the installation, entering one at a time. 

On entering the 8 x 2m shipping container, the participant was greeted by a woman holding a contract of consent. Until signed, the woman remained silent, directly staring the individual in the eyes (a physical manifestation of Terms & Conditions). Once signed, candidates proceeded to join the WiFi. 

Participants progressed to the second half of the container, divided by a partitioning door. With sensors tracking the participant’s movements, their real-time (digital) shadow was cast by a projection on two facing walls – one filled with 1000 characters from their most recent text or WhatsApp messages, the other a collage of 64 images from the participant’s mobile phone.

On opening the exit door of the shipping container, all information Data Shadow had on the individual was automatically deleted, ready for the next participant to proceed.

To my surprise, the overwhelming majority of people were not annoyed, scared, or bewildered by it, at all?! There was an 18 year old girl who told me it was “so cool” that I had managed to expose the naked pictures of herself and her boyfriend on her phone.

The second part of this series was the accompanying talk to Data Shadow at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, in which I shared the login details to my entire digital life with the audience, inviting them to take, use, share and change the passwords to my accounts as they please, which ranged from my Facebook account, Apple ID, to online banking, whilst I attempted to live without a digital footprint for 6 months. If you want to know more about both of these projects, please watch my TEDx talk.

And then obviously Poisonous Antidote, the exhibition and online in 2016, and then the film in 2018, were the final parts of this series.

Mark Farid, Data Privacy: Good or Bad? at TEDxWarwick

There are many discussions about the need to value privacy as a protected right. Yet, I often feel that most people do not really care. Do you think that this is due to people not realising what a loss of privacy entails or is it simply that we have new definitions and forms of privacy?

Personally I think it’s because no one is giving a satisfactory response to the statement, “I have nothing to hide”. I put a lot of blame on this statement, as it really angers me. Mainly, because it’s not true – everyone has something to hide, but more so, because I doubt that everyone, on their own, universally came up with this statement, so they’re simply regurgitating an incorrect statement, that shuts down the conversation. Why it shuts down the conversation, is because, the phrase “I have nothing to hide” is based on a presumption that we are guilty until proven innocent. This question flips the subject, quietly, but firmly putting the onus on you to explain why you have nothing to hide. It suggests that you are guilty until proven innocent and this fundamentally goes against innocent until proven guilty. But as I say, I don’t necessarily blame the people making this statement, I blame others – myself included – for not being able to give a good, snappy one-liner response to this.

To come back a bit more to your question, on people not caring about data privacy, I had always ultimately assumed it would take a huge public breach of data privacy before people changed their view. And then Cambridge Analytica happened and I thought that would have played that role of offering a counter-response by showing what happens when private data is used politically and in the wrong way. However, it still hasn’t brought any real results – legally, socially and culturally – in fact, it is Mark Zucckerberg and Facebook who are suggesting the regulation that should be imposed on them! Truly Crazy!

I feel where work like mine has missed the point, is that think people need to be confronted with their data in front of loved ones, but then this becomes too unethical, and this is the problem, data misusage is hugely unethical, and to really highlight it, I think you must be equally, if not more, unethical.

Still, i feel that we’ve reached a point i find a bit unpleasant. I was recently at the Chaos Communication Congress in Leipzig and that’s probably the only conference i attend nowadays where they tell you specifically that if you want to take a photo of the audience you have to ask people for their permission to be photographed first. Everywhere else, people do as they please and you end up finding photos of yourself drinking wine and making stupid faces on strangers’ Instagram accounts…

Speaking of the top of my head, this is touching upon two truths, I think.

First there’s the idea that in a free, neo-liberal world, the individual is at the centre: the individual is free to do as they pleases; asking for permission to take a photo of someone, in a public space, can be seen to be a restriction of the individuals (the photographers) liberty (to do whatever they want wherever they are). Obviously this is a slightly warped take on neo-liberalism as we’re talking about taking photos of people, but I think this is one of the roots of what enabled the normalisation of people to take photos of whatever they want. Of course then there is the uploading of the photos on the world wide web, but extremely rarely do people stumble across photos of themselves taken by strangers. But I think this has a bigger foundation in what the world wide web used to be, something free, open and for the people. Back in the day, pre-Facebook, when Google was simply a search engine, when Amazon was a bookshop, ideas of the internet, and even filming and taking photos in public spaces was completely different. But now, as the world wide web becomes more and more centralised, monopolised, and a capitalist Utopia – totally privately owned, essentially unregulated by governments, with a facade of being uncensored, free and democratic – we are the commodity and our data is the currency. This changes everything.

This leads us nicely into the second truth, which I think is a development of the centralisation of the world wide web. Facebook, Google and other privately owned online companies want your data, and want to know everything about you. Not you specifically, but you within the collective. Governments are quietly happy with this, for obvious reasons, along with the monopolisation (of the world wide web by Google and Facebook) as it’s hugely expensive and time consuming to get warrants to demand that lots of different companies must handover data. Getting two warrants, and forcing those two companies to do so is much easier and quicker than getting 20, for example. And then once they do get the data, getting it from one or two companies means they don’t have to process, organise or most importantly analyse your data themselves to nearly the same degree. If your data is coming from 20 different companies, that all use different formatting and (code) languages, then you have to change languages, and format, then aggregate and process this, and so on, which is very expensive and time consuming.

It’s significantly cheaper and efficient for Governments, advertisers, or anyone for that matter, to have one or two companies having all of your data.

And then of course when Google, Facebook, and the Government are ultimately in favour of a very similar, particular model, a subtle and continuous message from these companies and institutions will have underlying messages pushing the came philosophy – that data privacy doesn’t matter, or, ‘I have nothing to hide’. Overtime, this subtle message becomes engrained, and when you combine these incredibly powerful and influential companies (and Governments) you start to realise just how hard it is to argue, and succeed, in the fight for data privacy.

Coming back to your performance, i must say i found it very shocking, even though there is a long tradition of artists exposing their private life in the most open way (people like Tehching Hsieh, Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, etc.) I should be immune to a work like Poisonous Antidote but i’m not.

How has this one month performance changed the way you view social media and digital technology in general? Did it change the way you are using it?

Interestingly, Poisonous Antidote was actually the thing that got me to start using social media again. It really was my Poisonous Antidote. I’m not too sure about the title of the project, but it is a fitting one for my personal experience. As I mentioned earlier, when Data Shadow was being exhibited, and I gave the accompanying talk titled, Anonymity is our only right, and that is why it must be destroyed, I gave away the passwords to my entire online life, from my Facebook account, to my Apple ID, to my online banking account login details, and everything in between. This included my social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That was in October 2015. Poisonous Antidote was September 2016. So for that period I didn’t have any account.

It was only halfway through September 2016 that I I started to use (new) social media accounts, and this was to see the difference without social media and with social media and how that would change the whole experience to me…

What!??! You didn’t have any social media account for such a long time?!

No, when I gave away my login details, people pretty much immediately changed the passwords to my accounts, and that was that. They were gone and I had no way of get them back. Someone had been using my Facebook account for quite awhile, with some friends getting messages from whoever had the account. Someone is still using my old Twitter account (@markfarid). They set it private and occasionally tweet at me which is both frustrating and fun. It’s worth noting that I didn’t have any kind of accounts for this period – social media to an Apple ID to a smart phone. In any case (and ironically) Poisonous Antidote – a fight for data privacy – made me go back to social media.

But yes, it changed the way I use social media, a bit, but social media – and most website – are quite limited in what you’re really able to do. And as was the case with the gallery director of arebyte Gallery (in the Poisonous Antidote film), other people significantly reduce all of your efforts.

Do you do anything specifically different?

I’m very clear about the way I interact with everything and treat it as if it were a public conversation. So for example, the way that UK is moving at the moment, regrettably I won’t be surprised if we, by necessity, have a form of privatised healthcare in the future, and social media data, amongst others, will almost certainly be one of the things used to decide how expensive or cheap your medical insurance is. So i’m extremely cautious about the kind of things I’m saying to friends and family on Messenger, along with any photos of me, and what I’m doing in them.

I do as much as I can, within reason, the ‘headline’ thing, I guess, being that for every service that I use online, (Facebook, Twitter, Skype etc.) I have a different email address linked to it. Each email address is linked to a pay-as-you-go sim card that’s paid for in cash. Facebook is linked to one email address. Twitter is linked to another one, as is every sign-up I do. Nothing is linked together. I also use fake information, such as fake names and wrong birth dates. Ultimately, if someone wanted to link these accounts together, they could, it’ll just involve a bit more legwork for whoever is doing it.

How many email addresses do you have?!

Haha, I’m not sure. Many many dozens.

But then it makes you look suspicious.

I guess so, but the idea of ‘Anonymity is our only right, and that is why it must be destroyed’ was that by various strangers using my old, but real Facebook account, Twitter account, JustEat, Quora, etc. there shouldn’t appear to be anything suspicious, as they’re being used. That’s the reason why i gave away my passwords, because you’re not able to delete your accounts, so giving away my passwords was the only way I could essentially think of to make the accounts redundant and make the data useless, and at the same time, become invisible, for use of a better word.

How did ‘Anonymity is our only right, and that is why it must be destroyed’ go? How long were you doing it?

‘Anonymity is our only right, and that is why it must be destroyed’ was from October 2015 to April 2016.

When i gave away my passwords in October, the plan was to live for six months without a phone or computer. About 3 weeks after the start of the project, the Paris attacks happened which changed everything. For me, the Paris attach was the 9/11 of Europe. That was the big moment when terrorism became really present in Europe – innocent people being shot in restaurants, concerts and on the streets. The political and social landscape changed overnight. The argument for data privacy, fell flat on its face. The argument for data privacy is built upon individuality and the option to not conform, which is hugely outweighed when confronted with life and death.

During this 6 month period, without a phone or computer, my financial life plummeted beyond all belief. Along with my social life. To talk to me, people had to travel across London and knock on my door and hope I was in.

At one point, my dad hadn’t heard from me for a few months and was incredibly worried. He drove three hours to London to see if I was alive. I returned home to my flat to see a hugely worried, angry, but relieved parent.

At this point, I ‘decided’ I would get a different phone each month and would give the number of that phone to 5 people each month, and it would be a different 5 people every month – to made it harder to link it to me, i.e. If you had my phone number one month, you wouldn’t get my new one the next month, and this included my parents. Due to a plummeting financial side, and a lack of work coming in, I also got 3 different computers, each one I would only use for very specific purposes, at very specific locations, at specific times, whilst using a VPN and Tor.

What i found most traumatic in this experience wasn’t the horrific financial struggles, nor the lack of a social life. Not even the fact that someone committed fraud against me during this time and totally destroyed my credit rating – to the point that I was rejected from a new phone contract last year. All of these things were bad but manageable.

The hardest thing, however, was the cultural vacuum that I lived in during this period. Each day, I was getting more and more disconnected from the ‘real’ world, and what I found was that, slowly, this was effecting how I was interacting with people, what we would interact about, and my overall confidence. For example, it took me over 24 hours to find out about the Paris attacks, but if you were on Facebook – which I had no access to – things were going crazy, you couldn’t not know about it, but in the physical world, people were barely, if at all, talking about it.

I absolutely became depressed and developed quite a serious dependency on drugs a few months into this, and I became a hermit in many ways. In a very simplistic way, one drug replaced another. It wasn’t sustainable – although I did do the 6 months, it was truly awful. Having privacy to allow my sense of self to be free is not what I thought it would be.

I’d recommend watching my TEDx talk, if you want to know more about ‘Anonymity is our only right and that is why it must be destroyed’ and Poisonous Antidote.

So Poisonous Antidote followed this in September 2016?

Poisonous Antidote was my flip back because I found that the exact opposite happened: in totally giving up privacy, by having external-internal, expectations placed upon myself, I was infinitely happier. But this is the problem – my projected self, a constructed image of who I want to be, had a dedicate place to exist, and in doing so, it placed my virtual self at the centre of my real-world experiences.

For the first fifteen days, I found my usage of phone and laptop were normal. If I consciously acknowledged a change, it was, if anything, that I gained in confidence – using the experience opportunely to send things I might otherwise have not. But on September 15, half way through the project, I made a Facebook and a Twitter account, and almost immediately I became aware, even anxious even, about some of my prior arrogance.

Progressively more changes occurred. When I woke up, my phone and computer were not the first things I looked at, as I didn’t want people to know what time I woke up. When I did eventually go on the Internet, check my emails or reply to messages, the first things I looked at was the news, not the Leicester Mercury to read about football. When I was working, I didn’t procrastinate – digitally anyway, because everyone could see. I became very aware of my locations, so I made sure that I was going out, that I was being sociable, and that people could see I was being productive with my time. I would speak to my family more, I was on the Internet less, I was more productive, and surprisingly to me, I was enjoying myself more.

Mark Farid, Poisonous Antidote, 2016. Film by Sophie le Roux

Mark Farid, Poisonous Antidote, 2016

This is very different from ‘Anonymity is our only right, and that is why it must be destroyed’…

Poisonous Antidode certainly highlighted my own online editorial habits, the density of our digital footprints and, for me, the necessity of privacy. Unlike ‘Anonymity is our only right, and that is why it must be destroyed’, where I gave up online privacy to gain personal privacy, only to realise social media is indispensable to contemporary life, Poisonous Antidote embraced the publicity of social media. Subsequently, I have found that I was consciously and subconsciously changing my actions and behaviour to ensure I conformed to my insecurities, rooted in society’s ideologies – that I was doing what I was “meant” to be doing and feeling validated by the knowledge people could see this.

My narcissistic thirst for approval led me to willingly relinquish privacy in exchange for a perceived social stardom, where I was constantly judging my actions and options through the potential reception of my newsfeed, assessing my and their adherence to a standardised code of conduct allowing a form of acknowledgment that confirmed my actions and behaviours. The validation Poisonous Antidote created could only be fulfilled by further consumption, and as we used it more, each post, action and interaction meant less, for I become more reliant on it to fill the growing void it created. It become a self-feeding machine.

Now of course, publishing every part of my online activity might appear to represent some dystopian future. But the truth is that most of us are doing exactly this right now, – albeit in a more limited way. We are constantly self-publishing the details of our lives to technology companies, to governments, and to our networks on social media. The difference between you and I is of degree, not kind.

I also recommend going on where you can see all of my data for the month. It has been hacked multiple times, but all of the data should be back on there. You can also see the Poisonous Antidote film which premiered at the Strasbourg Biennale, and was made in collaboration with the very talented film-maker Sophie le Roux!

Mark Farid, Seeing I, ongoing

Mark Farid, Seeing I, ongoing

And of course, i need to ask you about Seeing I which is scheduled to premiere in September 2019. For the performance you plan to experience the life of another person for 24 hours a day, for 28 days, only seeing and hearing what one person sees and hears, using VR. You had a 24 hour test. Could you tell us how it went?

The 24-hour test run was in February 2014, using a DK1 (the first Oculus development kit). It went well. Well enough to pursue the project and put it on KickStarter in November 2014, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Since then however, I have gained funding from various place and institutions and done many, many, many more trials, the longest being 92-continuous-hours.

Unsuccessful? But i saw LOTS of articles about the projects and they all suggested that you already had the money!

Indeed, this was very frustrating. The KickStarter campaign got lots of press, but the press made no mention of the KickStarter.

In the 4 and a bit years that have followed however, the project is now being commissioned by arebyte Gallery, and is in partnership with the Sundance Institute, the National Theatre, UK, Imagine Science Films and looks set to be taking place at Ars Electronica in September 2019.

We have just finished developing the headband that record a 260 degree field of view left to right and 165 degrees up and down, along with audio. This is what the other person will wear, and has been the main thing holding us back from doing Seeing I, as it doesn’t exist, until now! It has a battery life of 36 hours along with a storage for 36 hours. We will be open sourcing the code, along with the .STL file for people to 3D print after the project has taken place.

The last three sections on the pre-production side to finalise is getting Ethical Approval on the project, and finalising the funders of the documentary (directed by Petri Luukkainen), which I can’t publicly name at this time. I hope to have these two parts finalised in the next two months.

The third section is who the Other person is. If you’re interested in applying, please visit and apply online! We favour applicants living a life aligned with the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. This means, a real-life person who thinks their life is “too boring”!

Mark Farid, Seeing I, ongoing

How do you prepare for this performance?

Since January 2018 I have been, and will be until the exhibition in September 2019, spending prolonged periods of time in virtual reality – a minimum of 45-hours per week – to train my eyes to function in close proximity to LCD display (with no exposure to natural light). This is also to overcome any potential motion sickness I might experience.

The longest I’ve spent in continuous virtual reality is 92-hours, as I mentioned earlier. This was the longest trial I’ve completed without taking the headset off, watching footage from a single person’s life, from first person point of view. I’ve also spent four successive days in virtual reality on three separate occasions, but these were watching stuff on Netflix, YouTube and playing games.

In June 2018, I averaged 16-hours per-day in virtual reality for 23-consecutive-days. This was a specific test, focusing on my eyesight and any potential short or long term damages that might occur. The results found no long-term damage to my eyesight, with the only short-term damage being that he was short-sighted for the two following days.

And another key part of my preparation for the isolation that I will experience during the project, where I will have no human interaction, no stimulation, and no eye contact, I have attended two 10-day silent meditation retreats and I’ll be doing another three in the build up to the 28-day exhibition.

Thanks Mark!

Touch Me, the 1st edition of the Strasbourg Biennale of Contemporary Art was curated by Yasmina Khouaidjia. The event remains open until 3 March 2019 at Hôtel des Postes in Strasbourg, France.

Previously: Strasbourg Biennale. Being a citizen in the age of hyper-connectivity.
Poisonous Antidote was commissioned by Gazelli Art House, London, and in partnership with CPH: LAB.

PROSPEKT. Organising information is never innocent

A VR-essay and performance by artist and researcher Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT draws disturbing and pertinent parallels between colonialist (and neo-colonialist) bio-prospecting practices and Google’s attempt to get their hands on the world’s knowledge in order to amass, organize and turn it into economically valuable resources.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

The setting for the performance is, very appropriately, the botanical garden in Gothenburg, Sweden. While botanical gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries housed mainly medicinal plants, their 18th and 19th century heirs were dedicated to displaying and labeling the exotic and sometimes economically valuable plant trophies discovered in European colonies and other distant lands. Like many Natural History and Ethnology museums on the old continent today, these botanical gardens are remnants of a colonial period impulse that combines economic and scientific ambitions. They stand testament to the extraction and accumulation needed to produce encyclopaedic projects that aided the organisation of the world. The colonial gaze was determined to scan the surface looking for specimens for study, fixing them as objects out of time and out of place, in the same way that digital documents offer imagings of the world at a distance via screens. This is a prospecting gaze – a wandering ogle that examines, sorts and determines meaning and value.

PROSPEKT is borrowing this marshaling gaze to guide its audience through an exhibition and remind them that organising information is never innocent. We shouldn’t trust a Silicon Valley giant with its archiving, exhibiting and mapping.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Poster of PROSPEKT. Design by Jaime Ruelas

Unfortunately, i couldn’t make it to Gothenburg to attend the performance but i contacted Geraldine Juárez to know more about the performance and the motivations behind it:

Hi Geraldine! Your essay “Intercolonial Technogalactic” documents a fascinating experience you made to ‘turn the techno-colonial archive against itself.’ Could you tell us about the experiment and what it showed?

This was the first of three texts I wrote about the Google Cultural Institute. It was originally written as a companion text for a work commissioned by Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin for the exhibition 125,660 Specimens of Natural History, which focused on colonial natural history collections and the environmental transformations they produced. I used Alfred Russel Wallace, who collected a massive amount of specimens from the Malay Archipelago and brought them to European museums, as an excuse to discuss the colonial impulse manifested in the Google Cultural Institute and their on-going accumulation of “assets” (in googlespeak) from public-funded museums around the world.

I explored and messed around with the interface and content of the Google Cultural Institute for a while and eventually I realised that for being such an ambitious project about “the world’s art and culture,” it was quite weird that there was no information about the history of such a culturally relevant corporation as Google. So I wanted to assemble that history. The text scrolls the interface while searching for its origins as well as the political-economical context in which this “cultural project” has expanded. “Fathers of the Internet” by Femke Selting and the essay “Powered by Google” by Dan Schiller and Shinjoung Yeo helped me get started and locate the first manifestation of the cultural agenda of Google in a press conference in the National Museum of Iraq and the artificial association with Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum, billed by Google as “Google on paper”.

The expansion of the Google Cultural Institute coincided with their legal problems in Europe, as a spokesperson said to the Financial Times in 2012: “We had publishers who were suing us in France and we needed to reach out and invest in Europe, and invest in European culture, in order to change that perception and establish constructive working relations”. A year later, the Google Cultural Institute, the performative institution serving as an umbrella for the Google Arts & Culture and The Lab, opened in Paris in 2013.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

At first sight, the ambition of the Google Cultural Institute “to disrupt the gatekeepers of world cultures by offering free digitisation and distribution  services to memory institutions worldwide” sounds like a generous and commendable endeavour. Why should we be concerned about it? Why is organising information “never innocent”?

Well, Google has proved that organising the world’s information and make it available to everyone is a business model, not a commendable endeavour.

Google, like all of Silicon Valley corporate culture, sees public services as inefficient infrastructures that they need to make more efficient. So their engineers often invent non-solutions to imaginary problems and present them as “innovations” while wrecking cities, labour laws, privacy, and what is left of democracy and its institutions.

In the specific “partnership” between Google Cultural Institute and public memory institutions, the experience of Google Books should be – but is not – more than enough. It is interesting that while losing interest in libraries and their texts (in part because of the copyright lawsuits against their digitisation activities), Google turned their scanning power and attention onto museums, mostly in aggregating images representing their collections.

This happens under a political and economic environment were cultural policy is reduced to tourism and entertainment, budgets are tied to attendance metrics and similar, with likes and #artselfies on social media constituting part of these metrics, which creates a pressure and a very uncritical “cultural heritage plus digitisation” solution, therefore making it difficult for our weak institutions to reject the offering of the Google Cultural Institute. Even if there is no visible paywall, every image that enters the Google Arts & Culture database is a new asset in a walled garden that – much like all of the Alphabet’s infrastructure and services – is quite inscrutable. In addition, the agreements about these public-private partnerships are not public.

“Organising information is never innocent” means that organising information is always intentional. Amit Sood, the director of the Google Cultural Institute, affirms that a project of this scale and ambition just started casually as a 20% project of “googlers” (meaning workers in googlespeak) who were passionate about art and culture. But I think it is more complicated and has to do with the emergence of the museum as a new kind of relation between people and the state. So in this sense, I think the cultural agenda of Alphabet should be seen as part of this post-democratic condition where information monopolies are increasingly acting like states.

Some other of the many aspects that I found problematic, and conservative like most tech disruption, is the way in which the Google Culture Institute glorifies the past and reproduces the hierarchies of an exhausted European canon. The gigapixel canon of Google basically corresponds to European “high culture” and its masterpieces, led of course by Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Even the way in which their offices in France are described glorify the cliché version of France. Silicon Valley “tech” culture is very ahistorical but when it comes to their understanding of european culture, it seems that they are very into a high-resolution version of the past and its clichés.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Why did you chose to work with Oculus go? What makes the headset and its technology significant in the context of PROSPEKT? 

PROSPEKT is a “prospect view”, a viewpoint, a wandering ogle that examines, sorts and determines meaning and value. The collection of objects in the exhibition are documents that locate the Google Arts & Culture platform within the history of encyclopaedic projects, its spatial economy and the organisation of “the world-as-an-exhibition” – a concept found in the the work of Derek Gregory about the data-set as a discursive practice and in relation to the spectacular “set-up” of the-world-as-an-exhibition explained by Timothy Mitchell.

Viewing and display techniques, such as 19th century World Exhibitions, botanical gardens and its greenhouses, dioramas, panoramas, archives such as Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum, mapping technologies like the Streetview car, and VR-headsets offering exploratory experiences of scanned surfaces, are all part of a very continuing tradition of gathering, collecting and organising in order to fix objects out of time and out of place in the form of documents. The use of the Oculus in PROSPEKT is the way in which the technical gaze can be performed and do what the prospect view does: explore, scan the surface, seek detail, organise and this time, presenting the world-as-an-endless-digital-exhibition.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

I also wonder how the performance was prepared: for example did the performer rehearse with you beforehand to make sure the quotes and images would appear in a certain order and that no content was neglected? Or was it a discovery for her?

The text in the space was placed based on the script, the curatorial work of Bhavisha and input from Josefina Björk, the performer. The rehearsals were hard because neither Josefina nor I had worked with VR before, never mind trying to come to an understanding of how to perform the essay spatially. She rehearsed with the text already placed and I modified it based on her requests. The work concentrated in familiarising with the space, how to move around, in which order and yes, how to not miss the important parts. During the rehearsals, we realised the text acted as a prompter too so Josefina suggested adding some signs too. These signs (*,**,//) helped her to know, for example, when to look up to read from the sky, when to emphasize something and when to take off the headset (as not all of the performance is with the VR-headset), so these signs acted as a cue for those actions too.

Geraldine Juárez, PROSPEKT, 2018. Photo by Katerina Lukoshkova

And during the performance, did the performer and the public move around the botanical garden? Was there any logic in these movements?

The audience gathered in the the main area of the greenhouse, the Tropical House, where there was a short introduction. After, PROSPEKT guided the audience to the Southern Hemisphere, where the audience took their seats and the performance started. The audience viewed the virtual exhibition through a screen with the feed of PROSPEKT’s gaze. The reason why there is an intro is to establish the greenhouse as the actual artificial and immersive environment containing the performance.

From the screen captures of the VR images, all sorts of quotes emerge: “it was just like an ambulance following a tank”, “there was a time when data was big data and big business”, “Data like plants are taken from the surface”, “capitalism is just a way of organising nature”, etc. Where do these sentences come from? 

All of the text in the space is from the script, which is a remediation of the essays I wrote before and some new interest in the relation with bio-prospecting and its evolution on data-prospecting. I didn’t want to separate the texts that shaped the script from the VR exhibition, but to piece them together in a spatial form.

The text is visible because it is meant to be read by the performer, not learned or recited by memory. In this way, it can be read by anyone else who wants to perform it. Potentially, a user could also navigate and read the essay if I distribute PROSPEKT as an “experience” (but I am not really interested in individual or multi-user consumption of VR).

Most of the text in the sky are “quotes” and most of the text on the floor is from the script. Although in some cases there is some of my text in the sky too because it just made sense for the navigation of the space by the performer (e.g., “data like plants are taken from the surface”) or because it was very important!

The sentences you note are from different texts such as Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World by Londa Schiebinger, Capitalism in the Web of Life by Jason W. Moore and a blog post by Dario Gamboni titled ‘World Heritage: Shield or Target?’

 Are there strategies we could adopt to resist this monopolisation of knowledge and culture?

There is always going to be a struggle for the monopolisation of resources. This is what politics is about. When it comes to the power that Google, including its cultural philanthropy, exerts over society and its institutions, maybe we need to stop resisting and struggle against it more actively.

Specifically, the so-called public “GLAM” industry – and I want to emphasize the public aspect as in publicly funded – needs some imagination and to stop being impressed with the digitisation fantasies that the Google Cultural Institute offers them in the form of gigapixels, content-management tools and gadgetry and focus a lot more on context, the one thing that the Google Arts and Culture platform can’t aggregate.

I also want to be clear that digitising images, aggregating them in a platform and framing them with “stories” is not “bad” because Google does it. The problem is that it is one of the most powerful corporations on Earth, the ruling class needs to monopolise knowledge to produce and maintain power, and by institutionalising information and related gathering practices they are able to dominate the ways in which images of the world are produced, classified, observed and understood.

For instance, Google did this exhibition called Digital Revolution (you can hire it from Barbican) that features the history of digital art according to Google, but as Rasmus Fleischer pointed out in his review, this is also a show about the absence of Google in the “history” they are exhibiting. If the history of Google is not featured in their own cultural platform and exhibitions, and if the managers of institutions aren’t making an effort to reflect on the political and economic context in which the cultural agenda of Alphabet Inc. has emerged, institutional critique is still a good format to reveal the dynamics consolidating the lack of plurality in platforms, protocols and services where culture circulates. The idea that searching and scrolling decontextualized high-resolution images means “access” is ludicrous.

Could you tell us something about the team that worked with you to develop the project?

I wrote the script and Bhavisha Panchia did the exhibition design of the 3D space based on my script and the related documents and objects on it. She also was in charge of all mediation (like for the contribution we made for the Monoskop Exhibition Library), the curatorial texts and she made sure I met the team deadlines! I modelled the 3D space and displays following her indications. Eva Papamargariti did the additional modelling of plants and palms.

After everything was assembled in Unity and packaged for VR, I started rehearsing the performance with Josefina Björk. She gave me input on the text so there were a lot of changes in the positioning to make it easier for her to read in relation to “the order” of exploring the exhibition. We also worked to avoid directions that produced theatrics and intentionally allowed space for improvisation as the script was not really a play. She helped me with lighting as she is also a very good set designer and we worked together on her wardrobe. Jaime Ruelas made the poster illustration. And Friedrich Kirschner helped me a lot with technical questions to find my way in Unity to the Oculus Go.

Are there any plans to show the performance in other locations? And would that require adapting the content or unfolding of the performance?

Bhavisha and me are working confirming more presentations, in addition to one presentation in Skogen during spring. About adaptation of the work, a small bit of the introduction needs to be adapted according to the venue. The site-specificity of the greenhouse in Botaniska was the ideal as it offered the perfect combination of nature, artifice and glass casing I need, but for instance in Skogen there will be some scenography and panoramic video.

Thanks Geraldine!

On 6 – 31 May 2019, Geraldine Juárez will be heading the Future Landscapes workshop together with Anrick Bregman at the School of Machines, Making and Make-Believe at the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway.

Performance Now. Live Art for the 21st Century

Performance Now. Live Art for the 21st Century, by art historian, author, critic and curator of performance art Roselee Goldberg.

Publisher Thames & Hudson describes the book: Now one of the most highly visible art forms, in the last two decades performance has emerged from the margins to become an essential vehicle for communication, transforming museums and galleries into lively cultural hubs for future generations.

This landmark survey by renowned authority RoseLee Goldberg reveals how live art has developed in the 21st century as a visual medium, a global language and a political force. A mesmerizing survey of this most varied art form, Performance Now is the ultimate reference for artists, art students and historians, as well as theatre, film, dance and architecture enthusiasts with an eye on the avant-garde.

Available on amazon UK and USA.

Didier Faustino, Hand Architecture, 2009

I should probably not broadcast it but the first question i ask before i go to a performance is “how long is this going to last?” I detest to be tied to a place for too long. I even check that a movie lasts no longer than 90 minutes before i consider going to the cinema. This book about performances, however, got me hooked.

Goldberg presents an exciting and wide-ranging panorama of performance art from the beginning of this century to now. Her book investigates how performance challenges interactions, communal viewing experiences, artistic codes, how it can convey multiple layers of meaning and how it is documented in images for future study.

Over the past 20 years, performance has gained in visibility in festivals, academia and even in historic museums. Audiences, it seems, like nothing more than a live contemporary perspective. What makes performance particularly compelling though is the way it has started to interplay with disciplines such as dance, architecture and theatre.

In the book, performances are distributed into 6 chapters:

The first one looks at how visual artists integrate performance into their work and what this means in terms of aesthetic qualities, composition and final documentation.

Nandipha Mntambo, Inkunzi Emnyama, 2009

The second chapter, World Citizenship: Performance as a Global Language, explores how artists from countries outside major art centres develop works that manage to transcend their local culture and communicate ideas and sensibilities that find echoes across cultures, languages and social practices.

Terry Adkins, Sacred Order of the Twilight Brothers, 2013

Radical Action: on performance and politics shows artists using the multi-layered nature of performance to record political violence, create aesthetics out of a state of anxiety or simply create poetic spaces for personal visions of an alternative and fairer society.

Robert Wilson, Steve Buscemi, Actor, 2004

Nora Chipaumire, Portrait of Myself as My f-a-t-h-e-r, 2016

Dance After Choreography echoes the growing interest of art museums and galleries in staging and shaking contemporary dance.

Chapter 5, Off Stage: New Theatre, investigates the growing interconnections between theatre and performance. On the one hand, artists are increasingly using the stage to engage the audience frontally and/or with spoken words. On the other, theatre artists turn to white cube spaces to deconstruct the elements and traditions of theatre.

Raumlabor, Monuments, 2013

Finally, Performing Architecture shows the work of architects who often collaborate with artists, choreographers or musicians to produce architectural interventions without the burdens of the profession. They use performance as a playful medium to engage more closely with audience but also as a critical tool for examining the controversies of their own discipline (gentrification, lack of social engagement, etc.) or to respond to urgency with quick solutions to alleviate the despair of people in need of a safe roof over their heads.

The author didn’t mention design but ‘performative design’ has also grown in popularity over these past few years.

Many of the performances discussed in this survey took place in New York city but the author nevertheless covers all continents and introduce us to artists from many cultural and geographical backgrounds. Here are some of the performances i discovered or rediscovered in the book:

Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s Whisper #5, 2008

The performance set up by Tania Bruguera at Tate Modern consisted of two policemen mounted on horseback submitting visitors to direct crowd control. They corralled people, split them into smaller groups, encircled them and used various techniques to control their movements.

Ming Wong, Whodunnit?, 2004

Whodunnit? was a classic British murder mystery played by a multi-ethnic cast. Ming Wong auditioned actors according to the list of ethnic minority categories found on cultural diversity monitoring forms for Arts Council England funding applications. During the performance, the actors delivered their lines in alternate accents: first in standard British English pronunciation; and then in the imagined foreign accent of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The accent functioned as the currency of power, with racialized accents expressing the subject’s relation to the detective.

The identity of the murderer is not the question; the real mystery is, what is the true identity of the individual?

Cory Arcangel, Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run” Glockenspiel Addendum, 2008

Cory Arcangel added even more glockenspiel to Bruce Springsteen’s album “Born to Run”. He made MP3 versions of the songs with his overlayed glockenspiel just audible, hoping his bootleg versions would find their way onto file sharing sites.

Guy Ben-Ner, Stealing Beauty, 2007

Guy Ben-Ner, his wife and children went to IKEA and shot a TV “family sit-com” in the “show rooms” of the furniture giant. Since they did not ask for permission to shoot the scenes in the shops, they had to find a different store-branch each time they got caught and asked to stop what they were doing. The work challenged the ideas of private property and consumption-driven domesticity.

Hasan and Husain Essop, Fast Food, 2008

Hasan and Husain Essop made religious ritual and American-style consumerism, Muslim traditions and secular pop culture clash in Fast Food. In the work, the brothers are breaking the fast during Ramadan with McDonald’s happy meals. Simple and powerful.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other, 2003. Photo

Pit bulls were escorted by private limousine into an art space in Beijing and strapped on treadmills facing one another. They then exhaust themselves trying to reach, and presumably maul, the other.

Tamy Ben-Tor, Hip Hop Judensau America, 2007

Aman Mojadidi, Payback, 2009. Photo

In Payback, Aman Mojadidi dressed as a police officer, setting up a checkpoint to stop cars. Instead of demanding a payoff, he paid the drivers US$2.00 each – the average price of a police bribe. Some people accepted the money. Others thought it would turn them into a target later. Payback started as a commentary on fraud in the country.

Luciano Chessa, Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners, 2009. Photo by Paula Court for Performa

In 2013, Futurist sound artist Luigi Russolo built special hand-cranked instruments to realize an expanded field of orchestral sound. These intonarumori (noise intoners) produced explosions, howls, buzzes, hisses and other noises not usually employed in Western music. Luciano Chessa oversaw the recreation of 16 intonarumori and curated a concert of original and newly commissioned scores.

Alex Schweder & Ward Shelley, Re-Actor House, 2016

ReActor House twirls when the wind blows and tilts on its supporting column. When the two artists in residence move, their weights can throw the home off-balance.

Inside the book:

K-9_topology, on the human/ dog co-evolution. An interview with Maja Smrekar

Maja Smrekar, K-9 topology ARTE_mis . Photo: Anze Sekelj and Hana Josic

Maja Smrekar has spent the past few years investigating human/dog/wolf co-evolution, co-habitation as well as the possibility to create a hybrid of the human and the dog species. Her K-9_topology work places this co-evolution at the center of a broader reflection around humanity, its presumption to have an innate right to rule over other living entities and the consequences this self-centeredness is having on the very future of our planet (or at least of our existence upon it.)

Maja Smrekar in collaboration with Manuel Vason, K-9 topology Hybrid Family, Berlin, 2016

K-9_topology evolved over a period of several years and is articulated around four artworks. The first, Ecce Canis, involved isolating serotonin from the blood of both the artist and her dog companion Byron to transform it into an odor that permeated a gallery installation. The fragrance symbolized the olfactory basis of their relationship and by extension the long history of mutual tolerance and taming of both species.

Maja Smrekar, I Hunt Nature and Culture Hunts Me (video extract of the performance) at Rencontres Bandits-Mages, 2014

The second project in the series, I Hunt Nature, and Culture Hunts Me took place at the JACANA Wildlife Studios in France, where she worked with animal ethologists to establish a relationship of trust with wolves and wolf dogs.

Hybrid Family is the third chapter in the series. In this long duration performance, Smrekar biologically manipulated her body so that she could use her own breast milk to feed an Icelandic Spitz puppy. The process took place in a retreat in the company of Smrekar’s dog companion Byron. The three of them thus literally formed a hybrid family in which the exploration of transpecies motherhood broke away from the confines of human families, “without humanizing the animal or animalizing the human.”

Finally, the project ARTE_mis enabled her to further explore co-evolution of humans and dogs by suggesting the possibility to create a hybrid creature. One of her ova was used as a host for a somatic cell of her dog Byron. The resulting hybrid cell was never meant to become a chimera. Instead, it suggested that if we care for Planet Earth and our survival upon it, we might as well morph into creatures that treat their environment with more consideration than we do.

Behind its spectacular and, for some, controversial guises, K-9_topology offers us the opportunity to reflect on uncomfortable issues such as the instrumentalization of bodies, the problematic position of the human species at the top and center of the ecosystem, the ambiguities of biotechnological practices and promises, the prospect of a post-human world, etc.

Maja Smrekar, K-9_topology

I caught up with the artist for an interview about K-9_topology:

Hi Maja! First of all, i’d like to ask the obvious question: the controversy that the works raised. It seems that some (lazy) journalists were so shocked and incensed by your performances that your gallery Galerija Kapelica had to publish a statement to clarify all misunderstandings and misinterpretations. I’m sure you were expecting controversy. But was it something that was part of the initial plan? Something that you’d use to fire up and deepen the conversation? Or was it just an inevitable byproduct of a brave and thought-provoking project?

Obviously some kind of a reaction could have been anticipated, especially in the light of the forthcoming elections last year in Austria where it all started. In May 2017, a right wing paper published news which falsely explained some crucial steps in my projects. Despite the official public clarifications of my work process by Ars Electronica and later by Kapelica Gallery, in the next months, this fake news with additional (mis)interpretations got pulled into a vortex of online negative virality. I understand these events as a symptomatic proof of concept on the times we live in, which are clearly established as a state of some kind of a universal crisis. Reactions to this crisis range from a diverse plethora of fundamentalism to the right-wing populism, that put everything not equal to their perception of ”normal” to the opposition, and some parts of the society are consequently becoming more and more conservative. Such radical and aggressive sensationalism needs to be resisted by radical artistic statements and works. I think artists are obligated to address those conditions of neoliberalism which causes a sense of social un-security in people. And people respond to it with great fear that usually manifests in different forms of hate speech. Those kind of reactions are simply built into the system all over the world. Therefore in the light of the above mentioned global atmosphere, I have since the start of my projects felt the need to resist this contemporary cynicism, which in the service of false political correctness in our society essentially rejects everything remotely animalistic.

Maja Smrekar in collaboration with Manuel Vason, ARTE_mis, 2016. Photo credit: Miha Fras

How about scientists? Was it easy to get them on board when you explained them what your performances would be about?

ARTE_mis project was the one that was strongly developed with a proposal through a scientific concept within which I was connecting three carnivorous species: human, dog and wolf. Ever since the beginning of their existence, all three species have been regulating the environment together, although wolf is an endangered species nowadays, whereas humans and dogs have became the largest invasive species on the planet. Therefore I placed our cell materials in an equal cohabitation relationship as an artefact.

What we got was not so much a chimera, as it was an artistic statement! Despite the fact that the project carries a plethora of biotechnological potentials, it at the same time serves as a civil tactical media act. Even though the final cell exists frozen in liquid nitrogen, it also evokes a public discourse and serves as a reference to the theory of Rosi Braidotti, who requires us to think beyond humanist limitations, in order to embrace the risks that becoming other than human will bring in the future.

The scientists I was working with could easily understand this concept. However, due to the before mentioned culture of sensationalism growing within the society of fear ranging from bio phobia, to bio phascination, they choose not to be mentioned in the credits of my last project. I think that was a smart decision.

Maja Smrekar, K-9_topology: ECCE CANIS. Credit: Ars Electronica / Florian Voggeneder

Maja Smrekar, K-9_topology: ECCE CANIS. Credit: Maja Smrekar

Maja Smrekar, K-9_topology: ECCE CANIS. Credit: Maja Smrekar

Were there moments when you realized that being an artist gave you more agency than if you had been a scientist? What are you allowed to do research, experiment with and perform that a scientist would be forbidden to do?

I think the regulations within the law and its consequences should always be considered on all sides. One of the main differences between the fields is the approach regarding methods of work. I do not think that the collaboration between scientists and artists is a competition in terms of which area could offer more possibilities, especially since as an artist, I use science in my work as an artistic media that communicates an important message: science and technology are present in every pore of our everyday life, so I think it is necessary to address them when we are dwelling on the aspects of contemporary society.

Works like ARTE_mis and Hybrid Family defy traditional views related to the female body, its accepted functions and its purposes. So i’m tempted to see a feminist statement in these performances. Was there indeed a feminist element in your approach of the works?

Absolutely. Hybrid Family with the whole durational breast pumping act was addressing the postindustrial perspective of the dominant service activity on which the sociological and ideological positions of motherhood are based, and as such the breastfeeding instrumentation as its derivative. The next step in the project was to establish an emphatic distance towards the Other. At a public presentation in my then established studio in Berlin, visitors were witnessing the feeding of a puppy Ada with my colostrum, while discussing reproductive freedom in a hetero normative society in which the concept of a traditional family seems to be an increasingly problematic illusion.

The concept for the ARTE_mis clearly grew out of the Hybrid Family but it also contains a further observation on our zeitgeist. In the face of disappearing natural resources and the increasing demand for them, the global migration flows, overpopulation and consequently threats to the environment and biodiversity, all evoked by a globalized capitalist system that seems to pursue its path of destruction until everything is consumed, I was dwelling on the myth of humanity, which has been based on universal values and our exceptionalism, always excluding some that didn’t correspond to the ideal which underlies the apparent.

There have always been fine gradations within the category of the human, according to gender, race, class, culture, nation, religion, species and so on. Therefore, not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that. Within a synergy of Hybrid Family and ARTE_mis I placed myself in the ultimate position of the Other, whereas through my body as well as bodies of my dog companions, I was therefore trying to initiate a debate on what conventional law based ethical phrases such as “compromising human dignity” even mean?

The 4 chapters of K-9_topology have now been completed. Did you, at any point, have to rethink your assumptions and initial beliefs? Did your project hit some limitations you had not expected? For example, in terms of interspecies communication, possibilities to create a genetic hybrid of the two species, technical procedures, etc. Did you hit walls, constraints that you had not contemplated?

I already start every new project with the assumption that nothing is going to be at the end as anticipated at the beginning, which is very exciting. Every artistic process is built on this kind of dynamics, no matter what art field we are talking about. For one, those technological “problems” are always at work. In a research-based hybrid field, the process of work is most important for composing the whole conceptual frame of the artwork. There are always many options how to achieve as well as interpret the result. Sometimes the process inspires me to take a different course from the one I anticipated at the beginning. That is also one of the crucial differencies between art and science. In art the whole research organically inspires you towards the final conceptual frame whereas in science a result needs to be the same as predicted at the beginning. And most importantly, the result needs to be repeatable.

Regarding the biotechnological infrastructure as one of the most important aspects of this kind of work – I consider myself very lucky to be living in Slovenia and collaborating with Kapelica Gallery, which has, under the Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana, established BIOTEHNA – a laboratory for artistic research of living systems, where I was able to execute bio technologycal part of my projects along with my collaborators, and fortunately had enough of the equipment, materials, resources, time and space to do so, considering all the troubleshooting that comes along in such process.

As for the inter species communication, in some of my projects my two dog companions, Byron and Ada, have been collaborating with me. Beside executing those projects, between 2011 and 2016, I have been educating along with them in dog sports and dog obedience trainings in Ljubljana, within an institution, registered by the FCI (Federation Cinologique Internationale) – the World Canine Organisation. As a dog handler I have received official certificates. Beside some projects, where I have been collaborating with other animals along with professional ethologists and animal wranglers within which all of them thought me a great deal about inter species communication, I am capable to recognize dog language and react accordingly.

You put your own body into danger. Trying to engage with a wolf pack, submitting your body to a special diet in order to feed a young puppy, etc. Are there legal or indeed ethical limits to what an individual can do with their own body?

I am not particularly interested in the ethical limits regarding how an individual would be treating her or his own body, I am more interested in the ethical limits considering one’s own body that are being set by the legal system. Therefore, by submitting myself to the dog-human kinship in K-9_topology projects, I started claiming myself as an agency that does not only inhabit, but becomes the owner of her own body. I needed to do so. For me personally it would be much more compromising had I not executed those projects the way I did.

Maja Smrekar, K-9 topology, at Galerija Kapelica. Photo: Miha Fras

K-9_Topology also raises questions about a “(dystopian) future in which biotechnology can create interspecies.” Are we close to this type of future? Is it a question of science not being yet ready for that? Or is it more a question of ethics, with limits to how much you can manipulate human bodies?

For me it is not about the technological possibilities at all. I think it is mostly a question of here and now, in order to defy fear towards the Other as something completely foreign, by being more emphatic. A simple recognition between two beings as the act of noticing and paying attention is a common thread that connects the core of nearly every living being. That is why in K-9_topology the concept which can be, among other interpretations, read as a speculative fabulation, a dog-human werewolf exists as a reminiscence of an extinct culture of man, to stress that we are in this moment living in an extremely cynical society which desperately lacks empathy. So, I think yet in the post human future the main question to ask ourselves will be: What (still) makes us human?

I’d like to discuss the ”Trust Me, I’m an Artistethics panel event that took place on 16 November 2018 at Waag Society in Amsterdam with the participation of philosophers, a biologist and other experts. What were the main critiques raised by the panelists?

I believe the main concern was whether it was ethical towards my dog companion Ada offering her to consume my colostrum.

And what were the panelists’ conclusions in terms of whether or not art can contribute meaningfully to the discussions around the ethical issues arising from new (bio)technologies?

I think the panelists should answer this question. All I can say is what we can learn from art history, which is that art is definitively beyond any kind of morality. That is why artists are so important, because we are putting the mirror towards the society with our critical thought that enables understanding the criteria for the evaluation of human activity in a specific time and space. That activity is called culture. I am very much aware that there is a certain price that needs to be payed for being an artist, and I am willing to pay it. That is my ethical obligation.

Thanks Maja!

A previous conversation with the artist: Post-anthropocentric art. An interview with Maja Smrekar.

Smart guide for connected objects, activism on the dance floor, cooking with phones, a human Alexa. Just another edition of the DocLab conference

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 at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

Superflux and Mozilla, Our Friends Electric

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 at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

Human Nature – Supernormal Stimuli

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.

Bogomir Doringer at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

Short documentary which sums up the concept and background of FACELESS

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 at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

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.

Conference host Ove Rishøj Jensen introducing Jonathan Harris at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

Jonathan Harris at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

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.

Yasmin Elayat at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

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 at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

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.

Jonathan Puckey at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

Interactive designer Jonathan Puckey presented one of his ‘older’ projects and i adore it! The Radio Garden website allows you to spin a globe and listen to live radio from anywhere around the world.

He was actually on stage to present the interactive VR music video Dance Tonite which is rather impressive but i’m a fan of radio so i’ll stay with that good old media today.

Panel with Francesca Panetta, the Guardian executive editor for VR, Oscar Raby, Creative Director at virtual Reality studio VRTOV, and filmmaker Zhao Qi

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 at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

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.

The public enjoying Amuse Telebouche at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

As you can see in this very flattering photo, I’m not too keen on experimenting with food:

Killjoy me refusing to taste Amuse Telebouche at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

The public cooking Amuse Telebouche at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

The public cooking Amuse Telebouche at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

The public cooking Amuse Telebouche at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

Jessica Brillhart and Jason Kottke at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

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.

Erwin Verbruggen at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

Erwin Verbruggen from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision presented FREEZE! A manifesto for safeguarding and preserving born-digital heritage.

W/O/R/K performance by Anagram at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

W/O/R/K performance by Anagram at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

W/O/R/K performance by Anagram at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

Caspar Sonnen and the team of at Doclab interactive conference in de Brakke Grond, part of the IDFA. Photo Nichon Glerum

This event was part of the DocLab: Uncharted Rituals program, made possible by the Netherlands Film Fund, Mondriaan Fund, De Brakke Grond and Diversion.

Previously: DocLab exhibition asks “Are robots imitating us or are we imitating robots?”
Image on the homepage: Emilie Baltz.