Category Archives: video

The Street. Where the World Is Made

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


Halil Altındere, Wonderland, 2013


Ugo La Pietra, Sistema disequilibrante, il Commutatore, 1970

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

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

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


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


Abraham Cruzvillegas, The Simultaneous Promise, 2011

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

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

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

Iván Argote, The beginning of something, 2011

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

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


Marcela Armas, Ocupación/Occupation, 2007


Marcela Armas, Ocupación/Occupation, 2007

Marcela Armas, Ocupación/Occupation, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eric Baudelaire, Sugar Water, 2007


Eric Baudelaire, Sugar Water, 2007

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

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

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

Francis Alÿs, Paradox of Praxis #5, 2013

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

Lin Yilin, Safely Maneuvering across The Road, 1995

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

Halil Altındere, Wonderland, 2013

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


Lin Yilin, Golden Town, 2011


Halil Altındere, MOBESE (Gold Camera), 2011


Andrea Salvino, Troppo presto troppo tardi, 2015


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


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


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


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


Martin Creed, Work No. 1701, 2013


Martin Creed, YOU RETURN Work No. 1701, 2013


Martin Creed, What the Fuck Am I Doing, 2017


Pedro Reyes, Ciclomóvil, 2007


Patrick Tuttofuoco, Velodream (Mattia), 2001


Patrick Tuttofuoco, Velodream (Riccardo), 2001


Cao Fei, Hip Hop Fukuoka, 2005


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


Boa Mistura, Crossed Anamorphosis (detail), 2018


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


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


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

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

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.

IDFA DocLab: my favourite interactive documentaries

Over the course of its 10-ish years of existence, the IDFA DocLab festival has been gaily exploring the narrative potentials of augmented reality, virtual reality, interactive documentaries and artificial intelligence. Their program, which is part of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, features an exciting mix of hi-tech entertainment, innovative ideas and socially-engaged conversations that i haven’t experienced elsewhere.


DocLab Expo: Uncharted Rituals. Exhibition view in de Brakke Grond, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum


DocLab Expo: Uncharted Rituals. Exhibition view in de Brakke Grond, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum

As usual, this year’s program was packed with dramatic commissions and entertaining debates but it was also anchored in today’s most pressing concerns: the plight of refugees in Europe, the legacies of colonialism, the plague of fake news, violation of human rights, climate change, etc. Topics that are everywhere in newspapers and on television already but with their more immersive, more in-depth treatments, the new digital art forms presented at IDFA DocLab seem to pick up from where traditional media coverage left off.

This year’s edition closed at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam on Sunday 19th of November. There was an exhibition, an immersive network summit, screenings, performances, a conference and more. I covered some of it last week but in this last article, i’d like to focus on the interactive and/or VR documentaries that you can experience online (with one exception at the end of the list.)

Here’s my short list:


Tessa Louise Pope, Echoes of IS, 2017


Tessa Louise Pope, Echoes of IS, 2017

Tessa Louise Pope’s Echoes of IS is one of the most moving interactive documentaries i’ve ever seen.

The documentary maker brought together 12 people who have been deeply affected by IS and radicalization. Each of these individuals get a chance to explain their own experience. First, there are the people whose lives have been turned upside down by the arrival of IS in their town: a young mother who was forced to flee a life and city she loved in Syria and who continues to be afraid even though she now lives in the Netherlands; a young man who has always fought for a more democratic and fair regime in Syria; a woman whose house was turned into a torture facility after she had been forced to leave her country, etc. Then there are people who were born in the Netherlands: the father whose 14-year-old child was taken away and who died waging jihad. A young man who converted to Islam and suddenly found himself surrounded by incomprehension and intolerance.

In one of the short films, they all get to talk together and explore how their lives have been impacted by the IS.

The films are heart-breaking. Instead of the anonymous refugees who ‘invade’ Europe and the worrisome Muslims, you get to know individuals who have dreams and values similar to ours. The saddest thing about Echoes of IS is that people who should watch it in order to get a more balanced view about the ‘refugee crisis’ will probably never see the film.

You can watch it online too.


Robert Knoth & Antoinette de Jong, Poppy Interactive


Robert Knoth & Antoinette de Jong, Poppy Interactive, Poppy field, Afghanistan


Robert Knoth & Antoinette de Jong, Poppy Interactive

Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong have condensed 20 years of investigation into the trails of Afghan heroin into Poppy Interactive.

Afghanistan is by far the largest producer of opium and this online documentary unravels the global network of insurgents, terrorists and criminal organizations that use drug money to fuel conflicts in various areas of the world.

The work combines in-depth analysis, historical facts and global perspective with personal stories. You hear the point of view of opium farmers, soldiers, smugglers, bankers, border guards but also people who would have lived a perfectly normal life in our own neighbourhoods had heroin not destroyed their life, directly or indirectly.

Poppy Interactive efficiently connects the dots between distant locations, global issues and personal dramas that would otherwise seem completely separate.

Shehani Fernando with Francesca Panetta, Nicole Jackson, The Guardian, Limbo ( virtual reality trailer), 2017

The Guardian is now producing VR journalism. To ensure that their audience is able to experience these new forms of reporting, the newspaper has recently given away 100.000 Google Cardboard headsets. The VR works the team developed allow you to get a more immersive outlook on issues such as autism, flaws in forensic investigations or solitary confinement. But it’s their research on the experience of asylum seeking that was presented at IDFA DocLab.

Limbo attempts to recreate the stress and misery of being one of the tens of thousands of people who are waiting for their asylum application to be accepted or rejected by the UK government.

While asylum seekers wait for their Home Office interview and the subsequent decision, they live on £5 a day and are unable to work or choose where they live. In Limbo you step into their shoes and experience their state of mind while you wait for the decision that will determine the rest of your life.

I thought the black and white sketch-like aesthetic would be cold and dull. However, the visual design competently reflects the daily sense of boredom, isolation, humiliation and prejudices experienced by these people during the long months they spend waiting for the Home Office to determine whether or not they can hope for a normal life in a new country. Limbo is very poignant. The warmth of the voices of asylum seekers, immigration lawyers and barristers gives the work a very intimate and distressing dimension.

Next time please distribute the free goggles to Daily Mail readers?


Gina Kim, Bloodless, 2017


Gina Kim, Bloodless, 2017

Gina Kim, Bloodless (Teaser Reel), 2017

You can’t experience Bloodless online but i liked it so much, i had to mention it:

Filmmaker Gina Kim was still in college when a sex worker was brutally murdered by a US soldier stationed in South Korea. On the 28th of October 1992, the body of 26-year-old Yun Keum Yi was found at the Dongducheon camp town. Two beer bottles and one cola bottle were found inside her uterus, and an umbrella penetrated 11 inches into her rectum. Her body had been covered in detergent powder to dispose of evidence.

For years, Kim looked for a way to tell the tragic story without exploiting the images of the victim. And then she found VR. “With VR,” she writes, “the viewer is no longer a passive spectator, who can take voyeuristic pleasure from a spectacle in front of them (and at a distance).”

The 12 minute VR film Bloodless not only traces the last living moments of Yun Keum Yi but it also explores the issue of the comfort women exploited by US army troops stationed in South Korea since the 1950s.

Bloodless was shot on location where the crime took place. It is as visually stunning as it is creepy. The work won the Best VR story award for linear content at the Venice Film Festival this Summer.

More images from the IDFA DocLab exhibition and a couple of trailers:


DocLab Expo: Uncharted Rituals. Exhibition view in de Brakke Grond, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum

Everything, a game by David OReilly, explores and meditates on tiny living things, on big systems, on how they are all connected. But it’s about far more than that too.

David O’Reilly, Everything, 2017

Catherine Upin, Julia Cort, Nonny de la Peña and Raney Aronson-Rath, Greenland Melting (excerpt), 2017

Catherine Upin, Julia Cort, Nonny de la Peña and Raney Aronson-Rath, Greenland Melting (360 video produced as a companion to the VR work), 2017

The Last Chair doesn’t have the sexiest topic (old men living alone in the countryside) but i liked it a lot. It was peaceful and moving.


Jessie van Vreden, Anke Teunissen, The Last Chair, 2017


Duncan Speakman, It Must Have Been Dark by Then at DocLab Expo: Uncharted Rituals, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum


Duncan Speakman, It Must Have Been Dark by Then at DocLab Expo: Uncharted Rituals, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum


Duncan Speakman, It Must Have Been Dark by Then at DocLab Expo: Uncharted Rituals, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum


Jonathan Harris exhibition in de Brakke Grond, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum


Jonathan Harris exhibition in de Brakke Grond, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum


Jonathan Harris in his church outside of Brakke Grond, part of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum

Previous stories about this year’s edition of DocLab: DocLab exhibition asks “Are robots imitating us or are we imitating robots?” and Smart guide for connected objects, activism on the dance floor, cooking with phones, a human Alexa. Just another edition of the DocLab conference.

Economia Festival. Consumerism, crabs, automation, and other insights by non-economists


Keith Yahrling, Home Depot, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2007


Evgeny Morozov with Olga Mink. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel for Baltan Laboratories

Another quick look back at the Economia festival that took place at Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven a few weeks ago…

As i mentioned earlier, the event’s rallying cry was that time had come to discuss the economy without inviting the economists to the table. The festival performances, screenings, artworks and talks did indeed bring a radically new perspective on the economical challenges that society has been facing over the last decade. The keynotes were particularly unexpected and enlightening. The ever eloquent and provocative Evgeny Morozov walked us through the signs of the formidable march of the tech giants towards political control and economic monopoly. Pankaj Mishra explored the Age of Anger and his talk was, imho, far less incisive than his book. The videos of their keynotes are online but i’m going to put the spotlight on the other two talks: Frank Trentmann‘s chronicle of the consumerist society and Geerat Vermeij‘s theory about how a closer study of biological ecosystems can teach us more about the mechanisms and trends of the economy than we might suspect.


Frank Trentmann. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel for Baltan Laboratories


Frank Trentmann. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel for Baltan Laboratories

Frank Trentmann: A world of consumers. Keynote lecture at the Economia Festival

Historian Dr. Frank Trentmann drew upon his book Empire of Things to narrate the history of consumption and the many impulses that drive our ‘material self’. It was a fascinating and instructive talk. I learnt that consumption didn’t start in the 1950s in the US but long before that, in Europe and in the China of the Ming dynasty. And that the biggest boom in consumption took place in the 1950s and 1960s when society was becoming more equal and the states started to dedicate more resources to the well-being of their citizens. I was reminded that women, at a time when they were not allowed to vote, turned their purchasing power into civic power, feeling that they had a social duty towards the underpaid workers who were producing the goods. Whether you agree with his views or not, you might find Trentmann’s concluding remarks thought-provoking, especially when he explains why he doesn’t believe that we’ve reached peak stuff, and why the drive for ‘experiences‘ is nothing new and won’t slow down our shopping frenzy.


Geerat Vermeij. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel for Baltan Laboratories


Geerat Vermeij: The economy of nature. Keynote lecture at the Economia Festival

Geerat Vermeij is an evolutionary biologist. Eleven years ago, he wrote Nature: An Economic History, a book which explores how processes common to all economic systems–competition, cooperation, adaptation, and feedback–govern evolution as surely as they do the human economy, and how historical patterns in both human and nonhuman evolution follow from this principle.

Throughout his talk, the scientist highlighted strong parallels between biological evolution and economics in the human realm in order to try and answer a rather vital questions: Can we construct a healthy economy that doesn’t grow?


Pankaj Mishra. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel for Baltan Laboratories


Evgeny Morozov. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel for Baltan Laboratories


Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel for Baltan Laboratories

The Economia festival was curated by Wiepko Oosterhuis and organised by Baltan Labs in Eindhoven.

Previously: Economia, a festival on economy without the economists and Economia festival: short films about finance.

Economia festival: short films about finance


Nathaniel Sullivan, Before the Nation Went Bankrupt (still), 2016


Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel

On Monday, i took you on a quick walk through the exhibition of the Economia festival in Eindhoven. Today I’m going to share a few short films, animations and documentaries i discovered over the 3 days i spent there. The screenings exposed the world of finance under the most human perspectives: from the bank robbery that goes terribly wrong to an economic system so complex they become incomprehensible for humans, from the bankers trying in vain to avoid massive troubles to people forming endless queues in order to receive free soup and bread, etc.

There were some real gems in the film program put up by Baltan Laboratories and the invited curators but i’m going to tell you only about the ones you can watch online for free:

David Borenstein, Rent a Foreigner in China

While he was in China studying urbanization and real estate speculation, David Borenstein discovered the existence of ‘foreigner agencies’ that hire European, Indian, African and American expats to help real estate developers market their new developments and turn remote ghost towns into ‘globalized cities’ on the days that investors and potential buyers visit. All the foreigners have to do is pose as investors, buyers, or ‘superstars’. Borenstein calls these jobs ‘white monkey gigs’. The festival screened the feature length documentary, called Dream Empire, but Borenstein also did a short film for the new york times that sums up the phenomenon and that’s the one you can watch above.

Jorge Furtado, Ilha das Flores (Isle of Flowers), 1989

Isle of Flowers is an amazing Brazilian pseudo-documentary short film by Jorge Furtado. The 1989 film follows the path of a tomato from the field to the supermarket to a perfume saleswoman’s kitchen to a landfill outside of the city.

Each stage in the journey of the tomato requires the exchange of money. Until it is judged unfit for consumption by the woman, thrown in the garbage, and unloaded in a landfill. There, it becomes part of the organic material selected by farmers to be given to pigs as food. The rest, which is considered inadequate for the pigs, is given to poor children and women to collect and eat.

The film talks with humor about the absurdity of consumerism and about our indifference to the suffering of other human beings.

Bela Tarr, Prologue, 2004

Prologue is part of “Visions of Europe”, a 25-film anthology made by film directors from the European Union. Prologue is Hungarian film director Béla Tarr’s sharp and remarkably poignant view of Europe.

Scott Massey, One Thousand Four Hundred and Ninety Two Fifty Two, 2011

In One thousand four hundred and ninety two fifty two, Scott Massey attempts to convince a bank employee to pay off his overdraft using the words, ‘one thousand four hundred and ninety two fifty two’ as payment. He recorded the dialogue with a hidden microphone.

Konrad Kästner, Cathedrals, 2013

The city of Kangbashi is one of the most famous ‘ghost cities’ of China. The images of empty streets and light shows that no one sees are accompanied by a voice-over telling the modern fable about a cathedral built of money.

Yorgos Zois, Casus Belli, 2010

As film director Yorgos Zois writes: People standing in line; all in order. Everyone is starving for something: products, entertainment, religion, art, money. But in the last queue they are all starving for… food. It’s the queue of personal survival. If the food ends, then disorder begins. And if one man falls, we all fall down.

Nathaniel Sullivan, Before the Nation Went Bankrupt, 2016

Before the Nation Went Bankrupt tells the story of the financial crisis through the fictional love letters that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon wrote to his wife, daughter, mistress 1, mistress 2, etc. He writes these messages as the financial crisis is about to change the world. More precisely, during the weekend he spent at the Federal Reserve, in Manhattan, summoned along with the CEOs of the biggest banks to save the world economy from ruin. Or rather to save themselves from ruin.

Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self (Part 1: “Happiness Machines”), broadcast on 29th April 2002

The Century of the Self is a 2002 tv documentary series by Adam Curtis. Episode one, Happiness Machines, exposes how Sigmund Freud’s theories were used by PR gurus and politicians to manipulate the masses. The central figure in the film is Edward Bernays, a pioneer in the public relations profession who showed American politicians and corporations how, by satisfying the inner irrational desires that Freud had identified, the masses could be made happy, gullible and docile.

Francois Alaux, Hervé de Crécy & Ludovic Houplain, Logorama, 2009

Logorama is a clever action-packed film told entirely through the use of more than 2,500 brand logos and mascots. Ronald McDonald is the villain, Michelin Men play the cops, the Green Giant is in charge of security at the zoo, etc.

Santiago Bou Grasso, El Empleo (The Employment), 2008

This short animation film by Santiago Grasso received 105 awards. It’s quite good but not 105 awards good, imho. Maybe the jurors were surprised by the ending (i saw it coming way before the guy left his house and i’m not even that clever at guessing the end of books.)

That’s it for today! More about the festival soon!

Previously: Economia, a festival on economy without the economists.

AI, global warming, black holes and other impending global catastrophes! Videos for your weekend

I’m just back from a short trip to Dublin where i visited Design and Violence at the Science Gallery. I’ve LOTS to tell you about the exhibition. It’s dense, brilliant and sometimes also a bit disturbing. It challenges everything you think you know about what is good and what is bad, about design’s role in discriminating, torturing and drafting new forms of insidious brutality.

While i was in town, i had the chance to attend one of the Science Gallery’s evenings that explore impending global catastrophes. Called The End is Nigh, the series is not as dark and gloomy as the title suggests. Well, yes it is but there was also a lot of humour, irony and messages of hope in the discussions. The panel i attended, Automatic Disqualification: Will AI mean the end of work, or the end of humans?, explored the possible threats posed by artificial intelligence in the fields of employment, social inequalities and even the survival of the human race.

Video of THE END IS NIGH #2 – Automatic Disqualification: Will AI mean the end of work, or the end of humans?

The panelists were:
Barry O’Sullivan, the deputy president of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence, who summed up the key concepts of AI, the extent of its presence in our daily life and the main threats that humanity might have to face in the near future,
Niall Shanahan, a communications officer for IMPACT, Ireland’s largest public service trade union, focused on how/where/why AI is going to replace us in the work place,
Mary Aiken, a forensic cyberpsychologist (probably the coolest title/job in the whole universe) whose work specializes in the impact of technology on human behaviour, pretty much dominated the evening. She talked about Google losing control of its search engine, lessons learnt and quickly forgotten in the area of AI, technology distracting us from the desire to be 21st century Luddites, moving from natural selection to algorithm selection, sexbots making human physical encounters IRL dispensable, etc.
– CJ Cullen, the Deputy Director of Communications and Information Services at the Irish Defence Forces, talked about (autonomous) killing machines.
The discussion was moderated by Anton Savage of Today FM.

Another panel looked at how we should deal with climate change: should we mitigate climate change now? Or should we wait for future technologies to solve our problems?

Video of THE END IS NIGH #3 – In Hot Water: Is Climate Change humanity’s Greatest Threat?

The panelists were: Cara Augustenborg, environmental scientist and lecturer at University College Dublin, Hugh Fitzpatrick, student in MSc Environmental Science TCD, and Barry McMullin, Associate Professor at DCU faculty of engineering and computing. The event was chaired by Constantine Boussalis, Assistant Professor in Political Science at Trinity College Dublin.

I missed that one unfortunately but i’m going to watch it tonight.

And i’m going to keep the first episode of the series, The End is Nigh: Asteroids, Comets, and Rogue Black Holes: Can Earth dodge a cosmic bullet?, for the weekend! This one looked at humanity’s best options to ensure survival in the event of planetary catastrophe.

Video of The End is Nigh 1: Asteroids, Comets, and Rogue Black Holes: Can Earth dodge a cosmic bullet?

The panelists were Mary Bourke, Assistant Professor of Geography at Trinity College Dublin, David McKeown, Assistant Professor of Design Innovation in the TCD School of Engineering and Niamh Shaw, engineer, scientist and artist.
The event was hosted by hosted by Joseph Roche, Assistant Professor of Science Education at TCD.

Photo on the homepage via Caribbean 360.

Bergen Assembly: The End of Oil, the end of the world as we knew it

A few months ago, i watched the geopolitical thriller TV series Occupied. The show starts shortly after a hurricane, provoked by effects of climate change, has ravaged Norway. During the following elections, the key promise of the national Green Party is that all fossil fuel production will be cut off. They win the elections and the new Prime Minister initiates the process of replacing oil energy with a thorium-based nuclear one. The EU is desperate to have access to Norwegian oils again and asks Russia to ‘gently’ invade the country. The Russian comply and take the power until oil and gas production is restored. At least that was the plan…

Occupied (trailer)

Well, non-fiction Norway doesn’t seem to have any similar strategy to turn its back on fossil fuel. In fact, the country has recently opened up the Arctic to oil companies so that they can start drilling. All in the name of ’employment, growth and value creation in Norway.’

One of the exhibitions at the intrepid and gripping Bergen Assembly, an art triennial that just opened in the small Norwegian city where rain falls lavishly and tourists embark on fjord cruises, explores how the global decline in oil prices and rising unemployment is hitting the country with the notoriously generous welfare system.

Curated by Mao Mollona, The End of Oil explores possible scenarios associated with the decline of the oil-based economy in Norway. With the prosperity of the oil-boom years likely coming to come an end and society finding itself on the brink of an infrastructural change, these scenarios relate to questions about our relationship with nature in a wider sense.

The End of Oil comprises two artists’ films. The first one is a short animation video by Phil Collins. It’s called Delete Beach and stars a schoolgirl who joins an anti-capitalist resistance group that gets high on fossil fuel energy. It’s as brilliant as you can expect but the second film is the one i found most moving….

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Massimiliano Mollona and Anne Marthe Dyvi, Oilers, Still from the video

Oilers, directed by artist Anne Marthe Dyvi together with anthropologist and curator Mao Mollona, is a short documentary that follows the construction of a Norwegian off-shore oil platform over the course of the year 2015.

What i found extraordinary about the video was that it charts the construction of the super large oil platform from the workers’ point of view. Which certainly contrasts with the kind of images you usually see of the construction of offshore oil platforms:

The production platform for the Edvard Grieg field

I don’t know how i was imagining the construction of an oil rig but i was certainly surprised to read that huge bits and pieces of offshore platforms are built across the world and then pulled out in the ocean to be assembled together.

But back to the Oilers video. The images show life in the Norwegian offshore yard of Kvaerner Stord. There’s the side you expect to see: the beige rooms where the workers sleep, the canteen where they eat, the security measure they need to follow, the huge scale they work on, etc. The images are splendid, the tools and tech are impressive and waltz in front of your eyes in silence. But the film also gives the workers a voice. Unedited images show workers protesting against the prospect of losing their job, labour unions leaders swearing to dubitative workers that ‘there is not sunset in oil’ and negotiating the cuts to make in order to win the next building contract, bands singing at hot dog parties that celebrate the completion of the finished platform, etc.

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Oilers (a bad photo i took during the screening)

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Oilers (a bad photo i took during the screening)

The backdrop of Oilers is a dramatic one:

The price of oil has dropped to around $30 a barrel last winter and at roughly $44 today, it is still far off from the $115 paid in June 2014. The plunge in the price of the barrel reveals the full extent of the Norwegian economy’s unhealthy dependency on oil and gas. According to newspapers, the energy industry accounts for 15% of Norway’s economy, more than half of its exports and 80% of the state’s income.

To make up for the oil crash, companies strive to reduce cost and increase productivity (at the expenses of the workers’ wages and living standards obviously.) Unemployment is rising. In 2015 about 30.000 jobs in the oil industry disappeared in Norway.

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End of Oil. Installation View, Bergen Assembly 2016. Hagerupsgården, Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

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End of Oil. Installation View, Bergen Assembly 2016. Hagerupsgården, Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

The snippets of discussions and dissent overheard in the film tell the story of a country that had it too good for too long and that is forced to ‘envision a future without the certainties of the past.’ The situation in Norway is certainly striking but it find echoes pretty much everywhere else in Europe where social democracy is at bay.

The project The End of Oil wants to create a conceptual bridge between the visible infrastructures of oil and the invisible and sensuous structures of feeling, including fears and hopes for the future and memories of how Norway was in the 1970s before the oil arrived.

Oilers is a splendid short documentary that shows the human side of the oil crisis. You root for the workers and hope they’ll get a job building another platform (they won’t, their employers didn’t get the contract in the end) but you know it would be wrong. This industry needs to disappear and this is going to hurt.

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End of Oil. Installation View, Bergen Assembly 2016. Hagerupsgården, Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

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End of Oil. Installation View, Bergen Assembly 2016. Hagerupsgården, Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

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Bergen Assembly 2016. Bergen Gamle Hovedbrannstasjon (entrance of the ex fire station where you can see the film), Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

The Bergen Assembly takes place in various venues around Bergen, Norway until 9 December, 2016.

Biometric Capitalism

Opportunity International Bank of Malawi brought modern banking services to poor clients traditionally shut out of banking in Malawi. Such innovations include ATMs fingerprint-based biometric technology. In some large Malawi businesses, production workers are paid by funds directly deposited into worker's high-tech OIBM Smart Cards..
ATMs fingerprint-based biometric technology in Malawi. Photo via African Business

Back in April, i was in Berlin for the Anthropocene Curriculum and very much looking forward to Truth Measures, an evening of talks and performances at Haus der Kulturen der Welt which examined the techniques and technologies for gathering data, truth, evidence and how they produce what is true and what isn’t. Unfortunately, right before that i had attended a fantastically informative workshop that involved walking for hours under the pouring rain and i had to chose between either going back to the studio i was renting and getting dry or getting the flu or whatever people get sick of when their brand new creepers make squishy squishy sounds with their every step. I thus missed the evening and the morning after everyone was telling me about this talk i would have loved.

It was called Biometric Capitalism: Infrastructures of Identification and Credit Risk on the African Continent in the 21st Century. I ended up meeting its author, Keith Breckenridge, a couple of days later. We were supposed to have a conversation but i ended up pestering him with questions about his work. Breckenridge is a historian, a Professor and Deputy Director at WITS Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg. My invasive cross-examination of him was one of the most exciting moments of my week in Berlin. HKW has recently uploaded on youtube the video of the presentation i had missed. Whoopee! Whoopee!


Biometric Capitalism: Infrastructures of Identification and Credit Risk on the African Continent in the 21st Century. Presentation by Keith Breckenridge

In this short presentation, Breckenridge explores what biometrics means in African countries, how it is used and by who, how it is affecting the poorest people in the world, how it fails, etc. And most importantly why we should be concerned about it.

Here’s the abstract:

A new and distinctive variety of capitalism is currently taking form on the African continent. States are being remade under the pressures of rapid demographic growth, intractable conflicts over boundaries, domestic and international security demands, and the offerings of multi-lateral donors and international data-processing corporations. Much of this turns to enhanced forms of state surveillance that is common to societies across the globe, but the economic and institutional forms on the African continent are unusual. Automated biometric identification systems present former colonial states with apparently simple and cost-effective alternatives to the difficult and expensive projects of civil registration. In many African countries, commercial banks are offering to bear the costs of building centralized biometric population registers, explicitly having in mind the development of a national identification database and commercial credit risk scoring apparatus, a combination that aims to transform all citizens into appropriate subjects for automated debt appraisal.

And here’s a few notes i wrote down while watching this video. I’m only adding them here in case anyone in this audience absolutely hates watching video….

For most of the last century, vastly more people in Africa have been involved in agriculture than in trade. The form of capitalism and the institutions that capitalism depended upon have been dependent on mining and on mineral extractions and in particular in the last 10 years on oil. That’s what dominated investments, state revenues, company revenues, individuals incomes especially property forms, etc.

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George Osodi, from the series Oil Rich Niger Delta, 2003-2007

It is well established now that there are many different kinds of capitalism. So what is biometric capitalism?

Biometric Capitalism is a system of economy activity organised around the centralised unity database of biometrically ordered populations registration where the identification is done on the basis of people’s fingerprints or some other iris that can allow for unique identification (or close to unique identification.) It is justified morally and politically by the politics and the technologies of cash transfers.

In South Africa, 40% of the population receives a monthly cash transfer payment from the state through a biometric system. There are many attempts of similar basic income grants on the African continent for people who are locked out of formal work. Banks are often the ones who are funding the development of these population registers and they are developing shared infrastructures for credit surveillance that are derived from the original FICO scores.

The FICO algorithm has spread very widely around the world and it has been adopted very enthusiastically in the last 5 years. Non-governments and governments are pushing the development of tracking systems around cash transfer schemes and student loans. Last year, the big complaint of students in South Africa was that the debt that they have to cover their subsistence while studying at university is handed over to the banks. If they don’t service the loans they are blackmarked very quickly. That is the first thing an employer will query when a graduate goes and applies for work. If you haven’t been servicing your debts, you don’t get shortlisted for an interview. You thus lose your ability to pay back the loan. Those loan schemes exist in almost all countries on the continent. These systems are heavily influenced by infrastructures of biometrics, government and banking that were first developed in South Africa over the course of the last century. It’s important to understand that biometric capitalism confronts two fundamental problems about the nature of the state and the economy on the African continent:

The first problem is that unlike the conventional barbarian and Foucauldian understanding of power knowledge, states on the African continent have limited knowledge about their population. Most births and most deaths are still not recorded. Even South Africa has only started recording the majority of births in 2002.

Unlike India, African colonial states did not count their population. They had no interest really in anyone, except the white people who lived in the cities.

Hundred years ago already, the colonial officials said “Don’t listen to Africans, they lie about who they are. The only way you can know for sure is if you record their fingerprints.” And much the same juxtaposition exists today.

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Projections of human populations to 2100, per continent

The second problem is demography. Most African states have experienced dramatic increases in population over the last generation, going from comparatively low densities to some the highest ever recorded. The current estimate is that in 20150 it will be between 2 and 2.5 billion and that by the end of the century there will be between 4 and 6 billion people on the continent.

Most states are scrambling to build bureaucratic mechanisms to get a grip on it. In each case we can see a convergence towards an administrative architecture that emerged first in South Africa. It’s radically centralised biometric identity registration, with privatised biometric cash transfers, universal credit histories, credit histories that come to serve as instruments of moralisation. So if nothing else really works, we can at least identify what kind of person you are by looking at your credit history.

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I could have illustrated the ID project in India with a more relevant image but i just love that this dog in Madhya Pradesh got an Aadhaar card for itself

There are other examples throughout the world, the most important is UID project in India.
Two things stand out:
1. It’s not a card, it’s a number. The government only gives you a number. It’s intangible. People have demanded a card, some have laminated the paper receipts.
2. A billion people have been registered in the last 5 years which makes it by far the most successful registration project ever attempted.

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Screenshot from Breckenridge presentation

Pictures of how this works in South Africa:

The first large-scale application of fingerprint-based digital biometrics was in the delivery of pension benefits in the former KwaZulu homeland in the late 1980s. Incidentally, this was the first trial of sound recognition and officials say they couldn’t get the people to be calm enough about it. They were initially reluctant to use fingerprint, thinking that people would associate it with the Apartheid state. But in the end they used fingerprint simply because that was a technique that everybody understood, the subjects and the officials.

The kits used in the 1990s were the same standardised equipment you can find today. It’s essentially ATM machines that are hooked up to a little biometric device.

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Screenshot from Breckenridge presentation

Net1 UEPS, ‘the anti-bank’, is a private company that is now the direct agent of the South African model of biometric government. It has contracts for government grants and pensions in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ghana, etc. This company is explicitly targeting offline, illiterate bank customers, what are called ‘unbanked populations’. The company has been subject to many legal disputes, but there’s no mistaking its momentum in Southern Africa and around the world. There are 22 million people inside the Net1 database itself. This is a separate system, it’s not the same one used by the government. Their business model involves providing a banking infrastructure so they are lending to the people who are paid grants by the government and of course they have access to all the income these people earn so they can lend to them without any risk at all. Last week, the World Bank bought 10% of the company for a hundred million dollars.

These biometric systems in South Africa are connected very closely to credit surveillance which didn’t really exist in the country in 1990. Between 1990 and 2016, we’ve seen the extension of the American system of automated information about your credit: not only what you borrow but also what you pay off on your utility bills as a means of gathering information about your suitability as a bank customer. The credit reference bureau collects your name, your identity number, your address, who your employer is, your debts and payments on your telephone account, your cable tv, cell phone contract, your utility bills, your credit cards and mortgages. This is a model used everywhere now. The distinction is that in South Africa, the state uses it as a moralising instrument. If i am an employee of a local municipality, i will decide whether you are a virtuous tenant by looking at your credit history. There are something like 20 million individual profiles in the system in South Africa and 50% of them are what we would call blacklisted customers. They can’t get access to credit, they can’t typically get access to any of the things that they are asking for, whether it’s access to a rent or the opportunity for employment.

Over the last 5 years, this system has started to move rapidly around the continent.

The fantasy of capturing the unbanked lays behind the first system of biometric cash or biometric money ever implemented on the planet. In 2007, Net1 was contracted by the central bank of Ghana for a national banking switch (the E-Zwich) that requires all bank transactions to be biometrically authenticated (in theory because it didn’t work like that in practice.) So you put your fingerprint on the reader, somebody else has to do the same in order to move money from one account to another. The scheme has been a dismal failure: the machines don’t work very well, they don’t access the cellular network and generally people have been very reluctant to use it. Ghanians haven’t taken very kindly to the idea that they should be submitted to a different technology to the one that they would use when they are in London. So there has been resistance from the rich and as for the poor, they don’t have any money.

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Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan looks at the replica of his electronic identity card during the launching of the cards in Abuja

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MasterCard-branded National Identity Smart Cards with electronic payment capability

The most outrageous of these schemes was the announcement in 2013 that MasterCard would be issuing the Federal Republic of Nigeria identity card. It sets in place an astonishing precedent and there is very little legal apparatus to deal with it.

Of course many of these things don’t work as flawlessly as scheduled.

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A group of youths display their disfigured fingerprints at Maili Saba quarry in Bahati, Nakuru. More than 40 youths working at the quarry have no Identification Cards. Photo: Kipsang Joseph/Standard

People working manually, like bricklayers, often present damaged fingerprints and they are never going to be biometrically captured. There isn’t currently a way to deal with this

Then there’s the problem of efficiency: after a decade of issuing identity cards, Nigeria have only issued them to 10 million people. There are 180 million Nigerians…

The model, however, remains in place. There’s no sign in other word of official hesitation or of remorse.

Breckenridge then read this article about the biometric registration of Kenyans. The process will involve scanning of existing identification documents, facial scans and taking of finger prints. Children under 12 years will have their irises scanned. The register will also capture land details, assets and registered companies, with a view of enlisting those within the tax bracket who are not paying duty.

So what is Biometric Capitalism and where is it happening?

Banks and states are now in an intimate embrace, funding each others’ work. Global corporations, donors, kit manufacturers all act together in a network.

Laura Mann has recently finished her PhD on this topic, focusing on Kenya. She describes an industrial policy that favours the creation, accumulation and sharing of data (currently without meaningful privacy limits); hinged on the creation of biometric national population registers that are hooked into the credit history system.

This apparatus is antagonistic to the strategies of subsistence and accumulation that have dominated on the continent to this date: resource extraction.

There are some sinister and in fact distressing new forms of coercively imposed civic virtue that will require people to act as individualised entities and be preoccupied with their algorithmically generated reputation.

Personal debts, debt service and the risks around the servicing of those debts are becoming the dominant forms of property and profit on the continent. In an economic landscape where mineral titles have long predominated. This is capitalism in a world with very weak states, where growth is demographic and where personal debt is the most valuable resource.

Videos from the same evening:
Truth Measures | Technosphere Truth?,
Truth Measures | The Common Sense,
Truth Measures | Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself.

Related stories: Confessions of a Data Broker and other tales of a quantified society, MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency, Obfuscation. A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, etc.

AL and AL, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse

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AL and AL. Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Image courtesy HOME

HOME in Manchester have recently opened a solo show by filmmakers and artists AL and AL. Called Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse, the exhibition brings side by side poetry and suspense, art and physics, children book and video art, Greek mythology and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, music by Philip Glass and Tarot cards, spirituality and human cloning. But in a form that is fortunately far more digestible than my introduction would suggest…

I discovered AL and AL‘s work in 2012. When cultural center HOME in Manchester was still located on Oxford Road and called Cornerhouse. The center had launched a call to commission an experimental short film on the occasion of the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth. AL and AL won the competition and produced a spectacularly intelligent and poignant film called The Creator. The 40-minute work hovers between past and future, imagining Turing’s final days and introducing us to the thinking machines of the future who journey through time to meet the man who is at the origin of artificial intelligence.

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AL and AL, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. The Creator. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Images courtesy HOME

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AL and AL, The Creator

The film depicts Turing as the exceptional mind we already know but also as a tragic figure who was convicted with gross indecency for being homosexual and forced to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido.

AL and AL’s film was inspired by Turing’s life and works, and in particular by the distress that followed the loss of the first love of his life, fellow pupil Christopher Morcom who died in February 1930.

Griefstricken, Turing started sending letters to Morcom’s mother. In one of these, he wrote> Personally, I believe that spirit is really eternally connected with matter but certainly not by the same kind of body. The sentence inspired the artists to imagine that one of the reasons why Turing was so intent on creating thinking machines was that they could be inhabited by the spirit of Christopher and would thus help him reconnect with the friend he had lost.

The artists believe that some of the greatest scientific achievements come into existence because of a personal story. During the private view of the show, the artists explained how real human stories affect and shape scientific research by giving the example of John Archibald Wheeler. While working on the Manhattan project, the physicist received a postcard from his brother, Joe, who was fighting in the front lines back in the Second World War. The postcard just read: “Hurry up.” Wheeler then sped up his work so that the nuclear fission experiments could also be used to end the Second World War, and thus bring his brother safely back home.

Turing is one of three key scientists whose work is featured in AL and AL’s Manchester exhibition. The first story travels to the edge of a black hole to explore Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The second chapter is the one dedicated to Alan Turing and the thinking machines. The last chapter is inspired by molecular biologist Francis Crick and takes us across the universe to find the origins of life and a cure for death.

ICARUS: At the Edge of Time – Official Trailer

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AL and AL, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. Icarus at the Edge of Time. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Images courtesy HOME

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AL and AL. Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Images courtesy HOME

Icarus at the Edge of Time is the first film made for the trilogy. The story is a kind of space opera based upon a children’s book written by physicist Professor Brian Greene who, in 2008, updated the Greek mythological story of Icarus to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity to his 5 year old son. The story transforms the mythological Icarus into a boy who defies his father, builds a spaceship and leaves planet Earth to make the first interstellar journey. Curiosity drives the boy to a passing black hole where he quickly forgets that general relativity predicts that the massive gravitational fields slow down time drastically for anyone or anything that finds themselves at the edge of the black hole. Because of this time dilation, young Icarus has thus been projected into what constitutes ‘the future’ for people on Earth. When the boy finally returns to the mother ship, he discovers that 10,000 Earth years have elapsed, he learns that all his friends and family have long died and that he has become a mythical figure, just like the classical Icarus.

Icarus at the Edge of Time takes the form of a three channel video triptych in the gallery, and of a live concert hall performance which took place at the Royal Northern College of Music on the 6th of February, with visuals by AL and AL, score by Philip Glass, and music from the BBC Philharmonic. Green himself flew in to narrate the story in front of the audience.

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AL and AL, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. The Demiurge. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Images courtesy HOME

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AL and AL, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. The Demiurge. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Images courtesy HOME

The third journey, The Demiurge, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and receiving its world premiere at HOME, was inspired by Francis Crick’s panspermia speculation, a rather weird hypothesis to explain the origins of life on Earth. The theory suggests that life may have been distributed by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization in the form of DNA encapsulated within small grains.

The work is also feeding on discussions that the artists had with Bart Hoogenboom, the nanobiophysicist who created the world’s first ‘real’ images of DNA using the Braille-like technique of a super powerful atomic force microscope. AL and AL explores the origin and destiny of DNA (and thus of life itself) through the tale of a scientist mourning the loss of the woman he loves. Accompanied by a crew of genetically modified clones, the scientist travels across the universe searching for a way to bring his dead wife back to life.

Interestingly, all the roles in the film are played by only one actress. Sophie Linfield portrays more than a dozen different roles, often playing against or in dialogue with another of her many selves. She played in front of a blue screen, and had no props, no set, nor fellow actor to engage with.

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AL and AL. Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Image courtesy HOME

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AL and AL, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. Vestibule. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Image courtesy HOME

The exhibition walls of HOME are part and parcel of these extraordinary journeys through space and time. The walls are painted jet black and as you enter the show, the screens, light works and drawings look like distant stars. It feels a bit like a planetarium. I found the delicate drawings particularly stunning. They were etched in white on black music paper, the same paper especially printed for American composer Philip Glass to make his notations. Made over the last five years, the drawings worked both as planning-and-development support while preparing the films and as artworks in their own right.

As for the light works, they embody perfectly the coexistence between concepts and ideas that, elsewhere, would seem to be completely antithetical and contradictory: objectivity and emotions, logic and irrationality, etc. At the entrance, a high neon sign spells “I Love You” in binary code…

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AL and AL. Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. I Love You. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Image courtesy HOME

A few meters further, another neon reproduces an equation related to time dilation:

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AL and AL. What Time Is It?, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. Installation view. Photo credit Simon Liddiard. Image courtesy HOME

Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse investigates in the most subtle and poetical way the fascinating, life-transforming but also the dark sides of technology. It is one of those rare exhibitions that push me out of my comfort zone, and thus make my life as a blogger so interesting. One moment i was sitting down, watching the film, being moved by the stories and sharing feelings with characters whose struggles had nothing to do with mine. Next i was furiously texting my boyfriend, sending him blurry screenshots of the screen and exchanging facts about black holes and DNA imagery with him.

If you’re lucky enough to live in Manchester (which in my book is the coolest city in Europe), do take advantage of the free entrance and enjoy the show bit by bit. One film at a time. I wish i had stayed another day in town to fully enjoy each film.

The exhibition launches AL and AL’s new book, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse, a travelogue in the artist’s words and images, featuring essays on the Multiverse by Professor Brian Greene, graphic novelist Grant Morrison as well as author and mythographer Marina Warner. Designed by Dan Streat. The publication is available from Cornerhouse Publications online shop.

Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse is at HOME in Manchester until Sun 10 April 2016.

Previously: Al & Al: The Creator.