Category Archives: politics

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.

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.

A book written by a car, recipes collected from email hacks and documentaries on universal income. This must be the IDFA DocLab show

Hello and welcome to my yearly overview of the IDFA DocLab exhibition which took place last month at de Brakke Grond in Amsterdam.


Klasien van de Zandschulp and Emilie Baltz, Eat | Tech | Kitchen, 2018. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Live event at IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum

DocLab is a festival program for new media within the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. With live cinema events, exhibitions, workshops, a conference and industry panels, IDFA DocLab explores new digital artforms that push the boundaries of documentary storytelling. I couldn’t attend the conference this year (alas!) but i did get a chance to visit the DocLab exhibition before it closed.

DocLab Expo: Humanoid Cookbook was designed as a restaurant for digital art. It offered the usual menu of interactive documentaries, VR cinema, performances and interactive experiments but with an extra edge of AI creativity and a bit of culinary action here and there.

The full list of projects selected this year is online. Here are the ones that kept me glued to the screens:


Gabriela Ivens, Leaked Recipes, 2018

According to web security experts, the frequency of data breaches almost doubled from 2016 to 2017. 73% of all U.S. companies have experienced some form of exposure of confidential data. And yet, many people brush off these breaches unless they are personally affected.

Researcher and digital privacy advocate Gabriela Ivens investigated the problem and found out that in the case of particularly bad email hacks, the content of messages can get released and reveal details of our personal lives, even when that was not part of the motivation behind the hack.

Ivens compiled recipes that have been crowdsourced from leaked emails written by staff at companies such as Enron and Sony. She traced the people who had been sharing these recipes, talked to some of them and, with their permission, shared their stories and recipes in a collection called Data Leeks.

Cooking instructions might sound very mundane but the fact that they can be retrieved and their author identified illustrates the extent and danger of data breeches.

Margaux Missika & Yuval Orr, Earn a Living, 2018


Margaux Missika & Yuval Orr, Earn a Living, 2018

I found Earn a Living, an interactive web documentary on universal income, absolutely riveting. We’ve all read about the impact that a universal basic income might on our individual lives, on the broader society, on culture and on economy but a lot of what we hear is based on hopes and speculations. The seven short documentaries explore different experiences (the Cherokee tribe in the USA, a Kibbutz in Israel, a small village in Kenya, etc.) and perspectives on universal basic income and explore how receiving money on our bank account every month without having to work for it might -or might not- change our relationship with labor, time and money.

Dries Depoorter, Die with Me, 2018


Dries Depoorter, Die with Me, 2018. Photo: Nichon Glerum

Die with Me turns a moment most of us dread into a privilege: a chatroom for smartphone users who have less than 5% battery life on their device. Only those with a battery that’s about to die can enter. They access the chatroom with a nickname and say goodbye to people in a similarly critical situation. People exchange their final thoughts, regrets and wishes, and scroll through a repository of afterthoughts left by others. At the Die with Me neon sign, visitors of the DocLab exhibition could read the chat messages left by people suffering from a battery emergency.

Simple, tongue-in-cheek and astute.


Ross Goodwin, 1 the Road Writer, 2018. Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Ross Goodwin, 1 the Road Writer, 2018

“It was seven minutes to ten o’clock in the morning, and it was the only good thing that had happened,” reads the first page of 1 the Road, the first book written using a car as a pen.

AI expert Ross Goodwin outfitted a car with devices similar to the ones used by Google Street View cars. But he added an A.I. writing machine that he had trained to convert images into prose and poetry. He then drove the vehicle from New York to New Orleans, the writing machine not only absorbed the views outside the car, it also picked up on the conversations Goodwin was having with his film crew, friends and colleagues inside the car. The AI processed all this input and the manuscript of the book flew line by line from the machine’s printer on long scrolls of paper.

With this automation of the American literary road trip, Goodwin invites us to ponder once more on the place and authority of the author in a new era of machines.

The work won the IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling.

Leonard Cohen and Feurat Alani, Flavours of Iraq (trailer in french), 2018


Leonard Cohen and Feurat Alani, Flavors of Iraq, 2018


Leonard Cohen and Feurat Alani, Flavors of Iraq, 2018

An interview with Feurat Alani about Flavors of Iraq on France 24

Twenty very short and very powerful animated films that trace the recent history of Iraq through the eyes of a child then a young man whose dad had to leave Iraq for political reason. Now an Iraqi-French journalist, the protagonist gives a very personal and sensory perspective on the political and cultural changes he could observe in the country each time he visited it to spend time with his parents’ friends and family.

The films convey the message that the backdrop of Irak is not just made of the smell of gunpowder, the sound of bombings, the rise of islamism, repression and of course the shadow of Saddam Hussein. It is also a place for human connections, humour, music and the flavour of apricot ice cream.

More works and images from the exhibition:


Shannon McMullen and Fabian Winkler, Algorithmic Gardening, 2018. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Rahima Gambo, Amina playing In and Out, Tatsuniya, from the series Education is Forbidden, 2017


Klasien van de Zandschulp and Emilie Baltz, Eat | Tech | Kitchen, 2018. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum

The DocLab Expo: Humanoid Cookbook took place at Vlaams Cultuurhuis de Brakke Grond in Amsterdam from Thursday 16 to Saturday 25 November 2018.

A book written by a car, recipes collected from email hacks and documentaries on universal income. This must be the IDFA DocLab show

Hello and welcome to my yearly overview of the IDFA DocLab exhibition which took place last month at de Brakke Grond in Amsterdam.


Klasien van de Zandschulp and Emilie Baltz, Eat | Tech | Kitchen, 2018. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Live event at IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum

DocLab is a festival program for new media within the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. With live cinema events, exhibitions, workshops, a conference and industry panels, IDFA DocLab explores new digital artforms that push the boundaries of documentary storytelling. I couldn’t attend the conference this year (alas!) but i did get a chance to visit the DocLab exhibition before it closed.

DocLab Expo: Humanoid Cookbook was designed as a restaurant for digital art. It offered the usual menu of interactive documentaries, VR cinema, performances and interactive experiments but with an extra edge of AI creativity and a bit of culinary action here and there.

The full list of projects selected this year is online. Here are the ones that kept me glued to the screens:


Gabriela Ivens, Leaked Recipes, 2018

According to web security experts, the frequency of data breaches almost doubled from 2016 to 2017. 73% of all U.S. companies have experienced some form of exposure of confidential data. And yet, many people brush off these breaches unless they are personally affected.

Researcher and digital privacy advocate Gabriela Ivens investigated the problem and found out that in the case of particularly bad email hacks, the content of messages can get released and reveal details of our personal lives, even when that was not part of the motivation behind the hack.

Ivens compiled recipes that have been crowdsourced from leaked emails written by staff at companies such as Enron and Sony. She traced the people who had been sharing these recipes, talked to some of them and, with their permission, shared their stories and recipes in a collection called Data Leeks.

Cooking instructions might sound very mundane but the fact that they can be retrieved and their author identified illustrates the extent and danger of data breeches.

Margaux Missika & Yuval Orr, Earn a Living, 2018


Margaux Missika & Yuval Orr, Earn a Living, 2018

I found Earn a Living, an interactive web documentary on universal income, absolutely riveting. We’ve all read about the impact that a universal basic income might on our individual lives, on the broader society, on culture and on economy but a lot of what we hear is based on hopes and speculations. The seven short documentaries explore different experiences (the Cherokee tribe in the USA, a Kibbutz in Israel, a small village in Kenya, etc.) and perspectives on universal basic income and explore how receiving money on our bank account every month without having to work for it might -or might not- change our relationship with labor, time and money.

Dries Depoorter, Die with Me, 2018


Dries Depoorter, Die with Me, 2018. Photo: Nichon Glerum

Die with Me turns a moment most of us dread into a privilege: a chatroom for smartphone users who have less than 5% battery life on their device. Only those with a battery that’s about to die can enter. They access the chatroom with a nickname and say goodbye to people in a similarly critical situation. People exchange their final thoughts, regrets and wishes, and scroll through a repository of afterthoughts left by others. At the Die with Me neon sign, visitors of the DocLab exhibition could read the chat messages left by people suffering from a battery emergency.

Simple, tongue-in-cheek and astute.


Ross Goodwin, 1 the Road Writer, 2018. Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Ross Goodwin, 1 the Road Writer, 2018

“It was seven minutes to ten o’clock in the morning, and it was the only good thing that had happened,” reads the first page of 1 the Road, the first book written using a car as a pen.

AI expert Ross Goodwin outfitted a car with devices similar to the ones used by Google Street View cars. But he added an A.I. writing machine that he had trained to convert images into prose and poetry. He then drove the vehicle from New York to New Orleans, the writing machine not only absorbed the views outside the car, it also picked up on the conversations Goodwin was having with his film crew, friends and colleagues inside the car. The AI processed all this input and the manuscript of the book flew line by line from the machine’s printer on long scrolls of paper.

With this automation of the American literary road trip, Goodwin invites us to ponder once more on the place and authority of the author in a new era of machines.

The work won the IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling.

Leonard Cohen and Feurat Alani, Flavours of Iraq (trailer in french), 2018


Leonard Cohen and Feurat Alani, Flavors of Iraq, 2018


Leonard Cohen and Feurat Alani, Flavors of Iraq, 2018

An interview with Feurat Alani about Flavors of Iraq on France 24

Twenty very short and very powerful animated films that trace the recent history of Iraq through the eyes of a child then a young man whose dad had to leave Iraq for political reason. Now an Iraqi-French journalist, the protagonist gives a very personal and sensory perspective on the political and cultural changes he could observe in the country each time he visited it to spend time with his parents’ friends and family.

The films convey the message that the backdrop of Irak is not just made of the smell of gunpowder, the sound of bombings, the rise of islamism, repression and of course the shadow of Saddam Hussein. It is also a place for human connections, humour, music and the flavour of apricot ice cream.

More works and images from the exhibition:


Shannon McMullen and Fabian Winkler, Algorithmic Gardening, 2018. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Rahima Gambo, Amina playing In and Out, Tatsuniya, from the series Education is Forbidden, 2017


Klasien van de Zandschulp and Emilie Baltz, Eat | Tech | Kitchen, 2018. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum


Exhibition view of IDFA DocLab. Photo: Nichon Glerum

The DocLab Expo: Humanoid Cookbook took place at Vlaams Cultuurhuis de Brakke Grond in Amsterdam from Thursday 16 to Saturday 25 November 2018.

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

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


Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet

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

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


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

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


Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Thanks Ebru!

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

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

Sonic Agency. Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance

Sonic Agency. Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance, by Brandon LaBelle.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher MIT Press writes: In a world dominated by the visual, could contemporary resistances be auditory? This timely and important book from Goldsmiths Press highlights sound’s invisible, disruptive, and affective qualities and asks whether the unseen nature of sound can support a political transformation. In Sonic Agency, Brandon LaBelle sets out to engage contemporary social and political crises by way of sonic thought and imagination. He divides sound’s functions into four figures of resistance—the invisible, the overheard, the itinerant, and the weak—and argues for their role in creating alternative “unlikely publics” in which to foster mutuality and dissent. He highlights existing sonic cultures and social initiatives that utilize or deploy sound and listening to address conflict, and points to their work as models for a wider movement. He considers issues of disappearance and hidden culture, nonviolence and noise, creole poetics, and networked life, aiming to unsettle traditional notions of the “space of appearance” as the condition for political action and survival.

During the Haitian Revolution, as the French soldiers sent by Bonaparte to reconquer the territory approached by boat, they could hear that Haitian slaves were singing a melody. They soon recognised it: La Marseillaise, the French revolutionary song, the patriotic call to fight against tyranny and foreign invasion. By making the famous anthem to freedom theirs, the Haitians defined themselves as citizens, not slaves. The French soldiers were confused, they realized they were the abhorred foreign oppressors of their own patriotic song.

The story ends well for the Haitians. The French army did attack them but the uprising led to the founding of a slave-free state that was ruled by non-whites and former captives. The Marseillaise sung by the people oppressed by the French was my favourite anecdote in Brandon LaBelle’s book. Each of the stories he conveys in Sonic Agency illustrates the agentive potentiality of sound, its power to exceed arenas of visibility, to interrupt the dominant order and support social and political struggles.

LaBelle identifies 4 mode of sonic agency, each with its own potential tactics and ways of building alternative frameworks of sociality:
– The invisible looks at how the unseen quality of sound might be mobilized as a basis for emancipatory practices.
– Anchored in the urban context, the overheard stems from interruptions and disruptions that encourage unplanned social encounters.
– The itinerant is dedicated to those who have lost their home either because of eviction or forced migration and who have, as a consequence lost their rights to the city. With the itinerant, lies another potential for acts of interference, estrangement and eventually maybe also a new appreciation of diversity (sonic or not).
– The Weak teaches us how to use fragility as a position of strength. It consists of passive resistance, peace prayers, hunger strikes, silent vigils, candle-lit marches, etc.

I must confess that Sonic Agency was not the book i was expecting. I was awaiting activist practices that use sound in a louder, more straightforward way. I was expecting more stories like the one of the Haitian rebels, more creative ways of getting your voice heard, more practical and easy to replicate examples of subverting the visible and leaving your mark in the public sphere.

Once i had absorbed the surprise of opening a book that wasn’t as obvious as i might have wanted, i ended up enjoying the journey. It’s a very theory-heavy journey but at least you’re in excellent company as LaBelle calls upon the expertise of Aimé Césaire, McLuhan, Bifo Berardi, Richard Sennett, Villém Flusser, Rastafarian culture, Edouard Glissant, Hannah Arendt, AbdouMaliq Simone and other thinkers to articulate how a sonic agency can support speech and action in a contemporary world dominated by forces intent on stifling them.

If you’re interested in what sound can do, this time with the most unpleasant ends in mind, i’d highly recommend another MIT Press book: Sonic Warfare. Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear by Steve Goodman.

Image on the homepage: Protesters taunt a line of military police during an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the Pentagon in 1967 (Bettmann/Getty Images), via Timeline.

Get Up, Stand Up! Changing the world with posters

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


John Sposato, Power to the penis, 1970

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


The MIMA museum along the canal. Photos by MIMA


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


View of the exhibition space. Photos by MIMA

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Free the Panthers

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


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

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


Anonymous, Bobby Seale Kidnappé

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


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


Anonymous, Indian power, 1971

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

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


Anonymous, Train Now

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


Anonymous, And Babies?

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

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


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

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


Dutch poster, by the anarchist environmentalist movement Provo


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

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


Atelier Populaire, La Lutte Continue, 1968


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

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


That’s All Folks!

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


Julio Le Parc, Frappez les gradés, 1971

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

Beautiful Rising. Creative Resistance from the Global South

Beautiful Rising. Creative Resistance from the Global South, edited by Juman Abujbara, Andrew Boyd, Dave Mitchell, and Marcel Taminato.

It’s on amazon UK and USA.

Publisher OR books writes: In the struggle for freedom and justice, organizers and activists have often turned to art, creativity, and humor. In this follow-up to the bestselling Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, Beautiful Rising showcases some of the most innovative tactics used in struggles against autocracy and austerity across the Global South.

Based on face-to-face jam sessions held in Yangon, Amman, Harare, Dhaka, Kampala and Oaxaca, Beautiful Rising includes stories of the Ugandan organizers who smuggled two yellow-painted pigs into parliament to protest corruption; the Burmese students’ 360-mile long march against undemocratic and overly centralized education reforms; the Lebanese “honk at parliament” campaign against politicians who had clung to power long after their term had expired; and much more.

Now, in one remarkable book, you can find the collective wisdom of more than a hundred grassroots organizers from five continents. It’s everything you need for a DIY uprising of your own.


Zapatista Caravan, Chiapas and Mexico City, Mexico, 1994-1996

I keep on reviewing books about art and activism. The topic is all the rage right now. Unfortunately, many of the publications, discussions and events on the subject tend to stay at the surface of things, going for the spectacularly ‘subversive’, the in your face and the provocative. There are real gems here and there though. Beautiful Rising is one of them.

Beautiful Rising is not a ‘coffee table’ object. It’s a manual, a toolkit for citizens who dream of grassroots movements that are effective, creative and compelling.

As for the Global South, it “is not a place. It’s a way of talking about a diverse set of struggles: the uprising of the planet’s people against neoliberal policies, at least, and against the capitalist system, at most.”

The projects described and analyzed in the book come from Asia, Africa and Latin America. But they should inspire the rest of the world too. Wherever we live, we all have to contend with the hysterical aftermaths of the latest U.S. presidential elections, the rise of intolerance, the deepening of social inequalities, the destruction of our environment as well as various systems of repression and discrimination. Although some countries and people have it far worse than others, of course.


Banksy, Sorry, the lifestyle you ordered is out of stock in London, December 2011. Photo via creating clever

The authors of Beautiful Rising have identified five types of tools for social change that should be mixed and matches, customized and combined according to every specific context:

Stories: accounts of significant actions and campaigns, with an analysis of what worked, what didn’t and why.
Tactics: the various types of creative actions and the potential risks they entail.
Principles: the sets of rules to follow and/or adapt in order to design successful actions and campaigns. Because there’s method and methodology even in disobedience.
Theories: the section zooms out on concepts that provide a foundation context and help us understand how the world works.
Methodologies: the practical bit with strategic frameworks and hands-on exercises to help assess your own situation and tailor a campaign.

Beautiful Rising is an energizing ode to civil disobedience. The stories of creative popular struggles might not all have a happy ending (many do though!) but they demonstrate that citizens have determination, imagination and humour, even in the face of brutal intimidation. As for the lessons to be found throughout the book, they build a picture of a South that needs solidarity not aid (or “NGO-ization” as the authors call it.) There’s a lot we can learn by listening to one another.

Here are some of my favourite stories from the Beautiful Rising toolkit:


BoxGirls Kenya, at Kariobangi Community Center. Photo: Adam Daver

After Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008, when many young women were sexually abused and traumatized, the organization Boxgirls Kenya used boxing to provide young women with an antidote to the shaming, stigma and fear that followed the brutality they had experienced. The sport is used as an entry point to discuss difficult topics related to sexuality and to violence against women.

The office also support girls with counseling, sanitary towels and, for those who can’t afford food, the opportunity to participate in a small feeding program.

The Vula Connection


Infographic showing the African National Congress (ANC) communication network during apartheid. Infographic: Ariel Acevedo | CC BY-NC-SA

At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, South African freedom fighters and hackers created an encrypted communication network that connected the leadership in exile with operatives in South Africa.


Traffic mimes in Bogota. Photo

Faced with a corrupt traffic police force as well as chaos and deaths on the roads, Bogota mayor, mathematician and philosophy professor Antanas Mockus fired 3,200 traffic cops and offered them the option to be retrained and hired back as mimes. 420 accepted the offer. They dramatized road maneuvers and mocked reckless drivers using only white gloves, expressive gestures and face paint. Traffic fatalities drop by over 50 percent.


The Ugandan women who strip to defend their land, Apaa village, Uganda, 2015. Photo

Female elders in northern Uganda invoked powerful cultural taboos by removing their clothes in front of two government ministers who were attempting to evict people in Apaa Village by force, grab their land and sell it to a South African investor who was planning to use the territory for elite sports game hunting.
To block the ministerial convoy, the community put up a roadblock and local women stripped naked in front of government ministers, soldiers and policemen. The move invoked a powerful cultural curse in Uganda where it provokes deep shame to see a woman the age of one’s mother naked.


Israeli activists were arrested for holding “Welcome to Palestine” signs at Ben Gurion airport. Photo: ActiveStills, via electronic intifada

Israeli authorities can deny tourists the right to visit Palestine if they state their intention to do so at the border. To protest Israel’s border policies, activists launched Welcome to Palestine, a campaign during which hundreds of international solidarity activists staged a “fly-in” at Ben Gurion airport demanding to visit Palestine.

In 2011, the first year of the action, more than 300 people from different nationalities took part. After arriving at the airport, activists peacefully unfurled “Welcome to Palestine” banners. Israeli police ripped down the signs and arrested activists. In 2012, following a “diplomatic” campaign by the Israeli government most of the 400 people worldwide who were set to fly to Palestine were denied boarding at their departure country.

The local and international media coverage exposed the Israeli regime of discrimination and repression.

Sofia Ashraf, Kodaikanal Won’t

In 2015, South Indian rapper Sofia Ashraf and Vettiver Collective turned Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” song into a protest against Unilever’s mercury poisoning at its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. The environmental crisis has affected the health of workers and is still polluting local soil and groundwater. Ashraf’s video went viral, giving 15 years of local campaign the international media coverage it needed. Intensified campaigning and a boycott of Unilever products forced the company to do the previously unthinkable: compensate Kodaikanal workers.


Sign in memory of the Black Panther Traffic Light’s effort to protect school children against traffic incident. Photo: Eric Fischer

Tired of waiting for a traffic light to be installed near a historically “black” public school in Oakland, armed members of the Black Panther Party escorted children across the street before and after school until authorities finally intervened and installed a traffic light on 1 August 1967.


Alexandre Orion, Ossario, 2006

The walls of the Max Feffer tunnel in Sao Paulo were covered with grime and soot from engine exhaust. Thinking he couldn’t be arrested for cleaning a public space, Alexandre Orion selectively cleaned parts of the walls through reverse graffiti. Local authorities had no choice but to clean all the walls in the tunnel, which had been Orion’s plan all along.


Freedom Summer activists sing before leaving training sessions at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, for Mississippi in June 1964. Photo: Ted Polumbaum Collection/Newseum, via

Photo on the homepage: Adam Daver, via Positive Magazine.

Using art to build bridges between people living in prison and people outside

Anastasia Artameva is the artist behind Prison Space, an ongoing project that investigates how art can be deployed to establish empathy and communication between incarcerated people and the public outside the prison. Arlene Tucker is the designer and artist behind Translation is Dialogue which looks at how translation processes can be harnessed to make art. As for Sonny “Elinkautinen” Black (Sonny Nyman), he is a musician based in Helsinki. After a few years behind bars, he decided to use his experience and talent to work with young people in the streets of Helsinki and through correction institutions all over Finland, making music and encouraging them to follow their dreams.


Image from a performance and workshop at Cultura Fest in November 2017 in Helsinki. Photo by Anastasia Artemeva

Together, they collaborate on projects that connect people who would otherwise have very little opportunity to meet, share experiences and debate about questions as diverse as social justice and the challenges of mutual understanding. One of these projects is Let It Out, a series of art exchanges for young people affected by imprisonment in Finland and in Russia. The three artists organize workshops and other events where the young people are invited to use art, music, poetry and other creative practices to work together, connect as individuals or simply let their imagination run wild.


Image from a performance and workshop at Cultura Fest in November 2017 in Helsinki. Photo by Svetlana Mikhailova Ostonen


Image from a performance and workshop at Cultura Fest in November 2017 in Helsinki. Photo by Svetlana Mikhailova Ostonen

You (Anastasia, Henkka and Arlene) seem to have very different backgrounds. So how did the three of you meet and decide to ally on the Prison Outside project? How do you complement each other on this project?

Arlene: Anastasia and I met years ago in Helsinki, as we were both exhibiting in a group show. This was back in 2014. I think Anastasia took the lead and contacted me about making art with children. Our projects always have seemed to run parallel and intersect with each other’s, either thematically or spatially. I was preparing for an installation at Performanssifiesta and suggested that Anastasia show her work there. That was the first time I heard about her prison project. Who knew years later that Translation is Dialogue (TID) would find itself snuggling with Prison Outside.

Anastasia: I met Henkka in a peer support center for released prisoners in Helsinki. He used to come there to play pool on his lunch break from studying to become a social care worker, while serving the last six months of his prison sentence. In Finland, in most cases, the last six months of a prison sentence are completed in an “open prison” – an institution with less strict rules. I visited this center Redis for many months as an artist researcher, setting up informal art workshops.

Our creative practices are very different, and I also feel that at the moment we have taken on quite different roles. I am perhaps more of an organiser in this project, and Arlene has been developing and will be teaching the workshops to both young people and their mentors. While both Arlene and I are artists, and will curate the visual aspect of the Let It Out exchange project, Henkka will produce the music. He has been working with correctional institutions and directly with youth on the street for some time now. His experience in composing and teaching music is an integral part of the project.

Arlene: I think what also makes us work well as a group is how passionate each one of us are about using art practice as a means of self expression. This probably stems from our own experiences on how art has touched us personally! Survival skills! Also, I can just plainly say that I always get loads of energy when talking about the project with Anastasia and Henkka!


Image from a performance and workshop at Cultura Fest in November 2017 in Helsinki. Photo by Anastasia Artemeva


Image from a performance and workshop at Cultura Fest in November 2017 in Helsinki. Photo by Anastasia Artemeva

How and why did you decide to explore the world of prison in connection with artistic practices? Did you have particular affinities with the issue of incarceration (if the question isn’t too personal)?

Anastasia: A few years ago, my close friend was sentenced for a very serious crime, which came as a big shock for me. This made me question my understanding of badness and goodness, and I feel that prison is a phenomenon by which as a society we draw a line between the bad and the good.

Henkka: I have been in state care since I was 2 years old, back and forth between over 20 different institutions. When I was 13 I started to write and perform music, and music saved my life. I had to go to prison for two and a half years when I was eighteen. And when I was released, that nine months was the first time in my life when I was free. And now I have served my life sentence, which was 13 years and 2 months. In total, I am now 34 years old, and I have spent over 15 years in prison and overall 32 years in institutions. Many people have told me that I have no chance, but it’s not true. I made it. I have been building my life, studying, and I want to inspire young people to get off the street and begin to follow their dreams.

Arlene: We all have our own story and personal relationship with justice and making mistakes. When I was 13 I became very involved with Amnesty International, which I have to thank my big sister for introducing me to. I remember at my school there was an Amnesty International club where we would all stay after class and write letters to various governments letting them know that we were on to what they are doing. That was when I first started learning about human rights on an activist level.


Art workshops in Redis, an open space for ex-convicts in Helsinki, managed by Kriminaalihuollon tukisäätiö, a Finnish non-govermental non-profit organisation supporting convicts, ex-prisoners, and their families. Photo: Prison Space


Invisible Neighbours, with Annika Niskanen, Helsinki Prison and Esitystaiteen Keskus performance art center. Photo: Prison Space

Your project “Let It Out” connects (or will connect) young people affected by imprisonment in Russia and in Finland. They are invited to exchange artworks, lyrics, and short videos, produced during workshops with artists and musicians. Their exchange will be facilitated using rap composition and translating techniques. Now i can guess the importance of music in this project, maybe as a language of resistance, social gathering and open expression. I’m curious about the role that the translating techniques will play in Let It Out. Is it just a matter of translating from one language to another or is there something more to it?

Arlene: Happy you asked about that! Since you mention it… TID uses the framework of intersemiotic translation as a means to understand what happens in the communication and creative process between different mediums all carrying their own system of codes. Let’s see how the groups take to it, but what I hope to integrate into these workshops in the prisons is to experiment with different translation techniques as a means to guide their creative process. This could help articulate what they would like to say, but also what is being communicated.

Now i’d like to have a look at the locations: Russia and Finland. I know very little about incarceration there. I do know that Scandinavian prisons are praised for the relative quality of life they offer to prisoners and guards. As for Russian penitentiary system, it doesn’t have a very good reputation. But then all i know about it comes from wikipedia, Pussy Riot and those books about Russian Prison Tattoos. Do you think my rough summaries of prison conditions in both countries need to be refined and nuanced?

Anastasia: Yes, penitentiary systems are different in Russia and in Finland, each with its own challenges. However, for me, this project is not about looking at these systems as such, but rather at the support structures that exist for incarcerated people and ex-convicts in these countries. I am also interested in the way society relates to ex-convicts, the stigma people live with once they leave prison. I feel also that the international community has this idea of Russian prisons as places of some kind of horror show, or a gangster movie.

As much as the conditions are, for sure, challenging, I encourage us all to look closer and see individuals, men, women and children, people for whom this is an everyday environment, in which they live and create. We are not here to showcase these systems, but rather encourage people to communicate and see the people beyond these systems.

Henkka: In Finland there are different types of prisons, some stricter than others, and then in Russia it is even stricter again. In our work we are trying to and find ways to create a connection between people in and beyond these institutions. Having an “insider” experience creates trust and makes it easier to communicate and understand the people behind bars.


Let It Out workshop. Photo by Svetlana Mikhailova Ostonen

Apart from the fact that Anastasia was born in Russia but currently lives in Finland, are there other reasons why you wanted to work with these two countries in particular? How easy or difficult is it to work with countries that have such different penitentiary “cultures”?

Anastasia: Russia and Finland are neighbouring countries, yet with very different prison systems, and different cultural relationships with incarceration. Both contexts have their own challenges. It is hard to navigate between institutions, particularly within such a stigmatised issue, but that is what makes our project unique. In my experience, cross-border public dialogue about prisoner support and rehabilitation is very limited. These issues seem to be at most only discussed within the very close circle of prison service professionals or academic research. I want to open it to the larger public, to find ways for solidarity and understanding.

What do you hope to achieve with Prison Space? Who do you think might be affected by it? And what do you think participants will take from the project?

Anastasia: Prison Space the website is designed for the general public. I also hope that it will act as a resource for creative practitioners, social workers and volunteers to share experiences and techniques for working with people affected by imprisonment. My dream is to open up a dialogue and challenge the stigma attached to incarcerated people and ex-convicts. With Let It Out project, in particular, I hope young people will investigate their experience of life when their freedom is restricted, express themselves, and share their creative processes with each other and with a wider public. I want them to know that there are others who have perhaps made decisions that have lead to incarceration, that no matter what country and circumstances you are in, your voice is valuable and you are not alone.

Henkka: I want the people who participate in Let It Out (the art exchange project designed for youth in Russia and Finland) to notice and value their talent and to have more self-confidence in expressing themselves. It is important for me that we do this project not for ourselves but for others. I believe that young people begin to understand the possibility of pursuing a career in creative profession even from one session. Young people I meet on the streets of Finland often have no plans or dreams for the future. Music and art workshops can affect their whole life, and can be a first step in becoming a professional musician or artist. Even if this only happens to one person, then we have achieved more than we could have hoped for. Myself I grew up in an environment where there are no big dreams, and I want to create a space where, by working hard, you can dream big, apply your talent, and achieve your dream.

Arlene: Following similar dreams and hopes with the project as Anastasia and Henkka, I hope that this exchange can also show how much one’s voice is a source of inspiration for somebody else. TID started as creating a space to show the translation process and how we are in constant translation. The contributed artworks are an inspiration and source for more points of self expression. Without the participants and without the artworks, we would just wallow in stillness, but they create movement and excitement within themselves and with others.

Why do you think art is a good medium to establish bridges and communication between the inside and the outside of prisons? Rather than activism for example? Or do you regard the project as form of activism?

Arlene: Making art gives me freedom and space to explore, make mistakes, and experiment. If I could share that with others and they would feel the same, great! If not, at least they tried something new.

Anastasia: For me personally this project is not about representing the community of incarcerated people, neither is it a fight, but rather a gentle, long-term journey to bring together folks of different walks of life. I enjoy art-making as a way reach out and learn new possibilities for communication, and this is what I hope will happen in this project. I am incredibly lucky to be able to do this as part of my artistic work.

Henkka: No, I don’t view this project as activism. An important aspect I’d like to mention is the therapeutic experience that art provides for people in incarceration.


Taryn Simon, Ronald Jones, 2002. Scene of arrest, South Side, Chicago, Illinois. Served 8 years of a Death sentence


Taryn Simon, Calvin Washington, 2002. C&E Motel, Room No. 24, Waco, Texas. Where an informant claimed to have heard Washington confess. Wrongfully accused- Served 13 years of a Life sentence for Murder


Edgar Evans. Photo by Suzy Gorman, courtesy of Prison Performing Arts. Photo via This American Life

Do you know of other artistic projects that have had some impact on the life of the people affected by incarceration?

Arlene: That’s a bit of a tricky question because how can we measure impact? I’m a huge fan of talk radio and especially for the show, This American Life. I had heard this one episode, where “Over the course of six months, reporter and This American Life contributor Jack Hitt followed a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last act—Act V—of Hamlet” (2002). What the inmates say about their theatrical work is amazing. What Prison Performing Arts does is build empathy, forgiveness, and awareness with the actors.

Another art project that has been very thought provoking for me is Taryn Simon’s photographic series The Innocents (2002), which “documents the stories of individuals who served time in prison for violent crimes they did not commit.” I was very much affected by this project because it made me think about not just the judiciary system, but I was feeling torn because I couldn’t imagine what these people must be going through. Being back in that place they were wrongfully committed.

What’s next for the project? Where is it going to lead you in the coming months?

Anastasia: In November 2018 we will have an exhibition of artworks by people affected by imprisonment, and a symposium on the subject of art in prison.

Arlene: I am excited for that and also am looking forward to making art and music with young artists in Finland and in Russia!

Thanks Anastasia, Arlene and Henkka!

Related stories: Inside Private Prisons. An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Prison Gourmet and YOUprison, Some thoughts on the limitation of space and freedom.

Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 1. The exhibition


Jeremy Hutchison, Movables, 2017. Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

National borders are being increasingly challenged under the pressure of mass movement of peoples, digital maneuvers and other technology-enabled disruptions, climate disorder, progressive policies or global economics. This new reality brings about tensions and anxieties but also new ways to consider questions of geography, politics and national identity.

Transnationalisms, an exhibition and symposium curated by James Bridle at Aksioma in Ljubljana, investigates the various conditions in which national frameworks are transcended and transgressed today.

While the nation state is not about to disappear, it is already pierced and entangled with other, radically different forms. Alternative models and protocols of citizenship, identity and nationhood are being prototyped and distributed online and through new technologies. Transnationalisms examines the ways in which these new forms are brought into the physical world and used to disrupt and enfold existing systems. It does not assume the passing of old regimes, but proclaims the inevitability of new ones, and strives to make them legible, comprehensible, and accessible.

Transnationalism is a poignant and challenging theme to explore in 21st century “Fortress Europe”. Yet, as the artists featured in the exhibition demonstrate, it is also a topic that calls for creative sabotage and digital trespassing.

Here’s a quick overview of the show:

Daniela Ortiz, Jus Sanguinis, 2016


Daniela Ortiz, Jus Sanguinis (Collage of Peruvian passport and medical book illustration), 2016

Jus soli, the “right of the soil, is the right of anyone born in the territory of a state to nationality or citizenship. Jus soli is the predominant rule in the Americas, but it is rare elsewhere. European countries, for example, do not grant citizenship based on unconditional jus soli. Instead, most of them grant citizenship at birth based upon the principle of Jus sanguinis, meaning ‘the right of the blood’. The main way children can thus acquire citizenship is thus through the blood of at least one of their parents and not by birthplace.

Daniela Ortiz is an artist of Peruvian descent. In 2016, she had been living in Spain for 9 years when she found herself pregnant. She knew her residency permit would expire before the birth and that her baby would inherit her nationality and legal status. During a performance that year, Ortiz received a blood transfusion from a Spanish citizen, directly challenging the nationalist regime of citizenship which would classify her child as an immigrant and automatically submit him or her to the violence of Immigration laws.


Raphael Fabre, CNI, 2017


Raphael Fabre, CNI, 2017

Last year, Raphael Fabre presented a request for a new French ID card. All of his papers were deemed to be legal and authentic. The ID card was issued. What makes his ID card uncommon is that the photo the artist had submitted to his local government was created on a computer, from a 3D model, using several pieces of software and special effects techniques developed for movies and video games. The official document is thus featuring a citizen which is practically virtual and fictional.

The work reflects the increased importance that digital technology takes in mediating our relationship with forms of authority.

CNI reminded me a bit of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series Portraits for which he photographed Madame Tussaud’s wax replicas of iconic historical and political figures. Just like in the case of Fabre, the setting was meticulously staged and the result adhered strictly to the rules of the portrait genres. In both cases, however, the hyperrealistic images add an extra manufactured layer to the representation of an individual.

Julian Oliver, Border Bumping, 2012-2014


Julian Oliver, Border Bumping, 2012-2014. Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

You might have noticed, when traveling in Europe, that your mobile phone operator sometimes notifies you that you’ve entered a new country minutes before or after you have actually crossed the national border. Your phone is in one place, your body in another. When active, Julian Oliver’s Border Bumping phone app collected mobile phone tower and location data to map the ways in which the electromagnetic spectrum defies the integrity of national borders.


Folder group, Italian Limes, 2016


Folder group, Italian Limes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma


Folder group, Italian Limes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma


Folder group, Italian Limes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma


Folder group, Italian Limes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Italy set its borders as we know them today in 1861 when the country became officially united. Global warming, however, have recently caused these borders to shift. The rise in the average temperature have resulted in the slow melting of the Alpine glaciers that marked out the frontier between Italy and its neighbours. Rather than deciding on a precise redrawing of its national frontiers, the Italian government made the interesting decision of defining its Alpine borders as ‘movable’. They can shift depending on the location of the watershed and how it is affected by ice melt.

The project Italian Limes (limes is the latin word for ‘border’ or ‘boundary’) monitors the fluctuations of a section of the Alpine border in real time. A couple of years ago, the team installed a series of solar-powered devices on the melting ice sheet at the foot of Mt. Similaun, on the Austrian-Italian border. The measurement units tracked the change in the tridimensional geometry of the glacier.

The GPS sensors are linked by satellite to the pantograph in the exhibition space. The instrument graphically reproduce, hour by hour, the shift in the border prompted by the glacier’s movement and shrinkage on a local map. The shift in natural border and by extension the reality of climate disruption become visible to all.

More works and images from the exhibition:


Jonas Staal, New Unions – Map, First draft, 2016. Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma


Jonas Staal, New Unions – Map, First draft, 2016. Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Jonas Staal’s New Unions maps the emergence of social movements and new political parties which are creating progressive models of political assembly and decision making in Europe while proposing new forms of transdemocratic practices. These political experiments transcend the boundaries of nation states, just like corporations do but with more ethical and humanistic values.


Jeremy Hutchison, Movables, 2017

Jeremy Hutchison’s work was triggered by a photo showing the inside of a car, the headrests torn open to reveal a person hiding inside each seat. The photo, taken by police at a border point somewhere in the Balkans, testifies to a reality where human bodies attempt to disguise themselves as inanimate objects, simply to acquire the same freedom of movement as consumer goods.

They Are Here, We Help Each Other Grow, 2017

Thiru Seelan, a Tamil refugee who arrived in the UK in 2010 following detention in Sri Lanka during which he was tortured for his political affiliations, dances on an East London rooftop. His movements are recorded by a heat sensitive camera more conventionally often used to monitor borders and crossing points, where bodies are identified through their thermal signature.


Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma


Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

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

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

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