The case of Ai Weiwei (Through haunting images...)
Last February 14,000 used orange life jackets were wrapped around the columns of the Konzerthaus in Berlin, turning the 19th century landmark into an eerie reminder of the ongoing plight of refugees. According to the International Organization for Migration, during the first six months of 2016 more than 3,000 people were drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time nearly 250,000 people arrived in Europe. Produced by the renowned Chinese visual artist Ai Weiwei, this may well have been the most pertinent artistic intervention addressing the refugee crisis. Locating his work in the heart of Europe, timing it to the highly publicized 66th Berlinale International Film Festival, he had every TV channel, newspaper, magazine, and website covering his installation.
On the same occasion, during a Cinema for Peace fundraiser, where he served as honorary president, Ai asked his high-profile guests to wear emergency thermal blankets, donate similar items to refugees, and also take some selfies, an idea which generated provocative, controversial images. A few weeks earlier, he had visited the island of Lesbos, one of the main points of entry for refugees and immigrants who cross the Aegean Sea in their passage from Turkey to Greece. His visit was fully covered by the Greek media creating mixed feelings, ranging from outrage to indifference, about the extent to which the dissident art star’s presence would be of any help to the worn out refugees or poor islanders.
Ai Weiwei's life vest installation outside Konzerthaus in Berlin, February 2016. Photo via Flickr user mompl
No doubt, the re-creation of the three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi’s tragic photo did not make things better for Ai’s social outreach. The image of the infant’s lifeless body washed up near Bodrum, in Turkey, had become an icon for refugees’ suffering, shocking the world and pointing to crimes justified by EU policies denying safe passage to ravaged refugees; even in Greece, largely considered a receptive EU country, an enormous boder fence has been erected in the Evros region.
In the midst of this tragedy, Ai Weiwei published a picture of himself lying on a Lesbos beach in a pose similar to that of the drowned boy. His gesture of appropriation sparked fierce reactions from people accusing him of making a parody of Alan’s death in a frenzy of opportunism and egotism. Social media overflowed with scathing comments, and many accused the Chinese artist of blatantly cashing in on refugees’ devastation. The dispute over the moral aspect of art engaged with the refugee crisis had reached its peak.
Ethical concerns are often regarded as irrelevant—or even unworthy—to the noble task of art criticism. This essay takes as its underlying assumption that arts practices should be examined and discussed across multiple registers, be they aesthetic or formal; historical, contextual, or cultural; or, in the case of the present analysis, ethical and political. How are artists, curators, and institutions handling the refugee crisis as it arrives at Greek shores? Are there limits to their value and efficacy? Might new models for engagement emerge from this crisis?
Documenta and the Athens Biennale (Perhaps we could learn...)
The case of Ai Weiwei was not the first incident that brought Greece into the spotlight of international art discourse in recent years. His artistic response to the challenges facing refugees and the Greek nation, as well as some of the critical refrains he’s faced, are predated by similar grappling from prominent arts institutions.
In October 2014, the team of Documenta announced the overarching themes and the location of its 2017 edition at the symposium “documenta 14, Kassel: Learning from Athens,” held at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kassel. The new structure introduced an interesting shift of roles since Documenta would no longer be (just) the host for international art in Kassel, but it would also act as a guest in Athens.
Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk explained this decision, arguing that the ongoing political, financial, and social turmoil registered in this specific geopolitical territory is something which must be re-examined by artists, curators, and visitors alike. In his own words,
If Athens exemplifies the current issues that extend beyond the proverbial notion of the “Greek Crisis,” these problems—which are as much European and global as they are Greek—remain unresolved. Yet they present us with an opportunity to open up a space of imagination, thinking, and action…
In an attempt to forestall critique, Szymczyk rushed to stress the equal position that the two locations will hold, highlighting the dynamic between them and focusing on the mutual exchange of knowledge and cultural production Documenta aims to foster. Leading up to the openings in April 2017 (Athens) and June 2017 (Kassel) is a three-year working period delineated as an ongoing process of learning, involving local communities and cultural producers in both locations.
From the start, Documenta acknowledges the tension between the North and the South, so prevalent in the political and economic arena, proposing a twist of this proverbial status quo: artists and art collectives will be asked to suggest artworks for both venues, taking into account the respective conditions and stereotypes of the socio-political realities experienced first-hand. This tricky engagement of a well-established opposition could easily relapse into a blunt corroboration of the binary model “Rich North versus Poor South,” enhancing the very concept it strives to counteract. Surely, the elimination of such perilous slips is a hard task when an art show—especially of the scale and influence of Documenta—ventures to intervene in the shifting realities of the current state of (not only Greek but definitely European and perhaps global) crisis.
“Art tourism” or long-term commitment? Appropriation or a unique chance for an under-recognized art scene to attain visibility? Institutional marketing strategy?—the coming months will tell. For now, local artists who have not been in contact with the Athens curatorial team maintain a sceptical stance. Despite their strong interest in the pressing issues of crisis and refugee flows, many artists and curators avoid straightforward references, instead approaching the subjects in a metaphorical or abstract manner. See for instance the forthcoming Thessaloniki Biennale (September 2017) which has just announced “Home” as its central concept, or the Action Field Kodra visual arts festival (of which this author was formerly co-curator), titled “Error” in June 2015, as the debt crisis, the referendum, and the subsequentcapital controls stunned the country (and the rest of Europe).
The question of who is telling the story in the name of whom emerges as the core issue at stake.
Another major player in this conversation is the ten-year-old Athens Biennale, the leading contemporary art biennale in Greece. The curatorial team has dedicated its current edition to alternative economies’ models, calling it OMONOIA (concord). At the same time, the Athens Biennale attempts to question the very institution of biennales by extending its activities over a two-year period, bringing its 2015 and 2017 editions into one single project, which will reach its peak in June 2017 “with the opening of Documenta 14.”
The Athens Biennale’s effort to involve collectives and initiatives from the socio-political field met bewilderment instead of enthusiasm, with some accusing the team of taking advantage of a community they have never been in touch before. In other words, they were criticized for using the struggles and hardships of unprivileged subjects from a privileged position. As such responses circulated in private conversation across the insular world of Greek arts professionals, the public at large, with bigger things to worry about, was hardly aware of the controversy—or of any of the Athens Biennale or Documenta’s acclaimed novelties.Once again, the encounter between the art world and the world around it proves to be a contentious matter. The question of who is telling the story in the name of whom emerges as the core issue at stake.
Miwon Kwon’s critique of site-specific art coupled with Hal Foster’s examination of the famous “artist as ethnographer” paradigm, have showcased the manifold controversies of contemporary artistic practices that aspire to keep up with the feverish fluidity of the globalized world. In this already bleak context, pressing issues of our time have pushed the “privileged versus the wretched” paradigm into the heart of Europe in a way that is absolutely unremitting for those who follow the social and political unrest.
By entering this discussion, I hope to tease out those initiatives which focus on raising awareness and empowering the vulnerable subjects, instead of getting “solidarity credits” for their own profit. This remark should not be interpreted as a plea for activist art; giving voice to the voiceless often implies a subtle approach which grants space for their stories and treats them with respect, rather than reproducing cliché representations. No doubt, besides giving space and voice, artistic practices at times also manage to dismantle dominant rhetoric and reveal intrinsic power relations, highlighting the causes of forced displacement and its aftermath. It is precisely in these cases where aesthetic form, content, and socio-political impact finally converge and art reaches its full potential. Whether Documenta 14 and the Athens Biennale, in digging into the institutional critique toolbox, will achieve this potential remains to be seen.
An insightful index in this complicated analysis might be the “talking” subject—that is, the artist or curator’s—position and no doubt his or her association with the actual story’s subjects—be they refugees, victims of the economic meltdown, or any other kind of vulnerable Other. At this juncture, it seems to me that the only prerequisite one should rightfully demand, is for an artist, curator, or institution to abstain from glaring piggy-backing onto human tragedy by contributing to media overexposure and provocative imagery that could insult rather than commemorate the victims.
Fortress Europe, 2016, Short film, Cinematographic Team of Evening High School of Kos, Directed by Sotiris Palaskas
But, as in any complex conversation, there aren’t always clear answers with regards to what is respectful and successful, and what is not. Personal or familial history with subject matter can enhance one’s engagement, but an insistence on it can result in discounting artists who do not share the migrant or refugee experience. A long-term interest and commitment is a clear indication of honest intentions, but there have been respectful and affective responses to the refugee crisis from multiple distances and time periods. Close to home, there is the acclaimed Fortress Europe, an arresting short film by the Cinematography Team of the Evening High School in Kos. Further afield we find Georgia Lale’s performance project #OrangeVest carried out in numerous landmarks in the United States. Be it too close or too far from the turmoil, in both cases there is proof one can make a strong statement.
Towards a different paradigm? (That this is a world not ours)
The exhibition A World Not Oursopened at the start of this month in another landing point for refugees, the Greek island of Samos. Curated by the internationally celebrated Katerina Gregos and organized in Art Space Pythagorion by the Schwarz Foundation, this is probably the first largely known case of an exhibition which looks at the migrant crisis in such a clear yet multifaceted way. Balancing between the local and the global, A World Not Ours is also an exhibition about diaspora, identity, and the existential limbo of the displaced. Gregos introduces the exhibition thusly:
Given the highly charged location, it is vital that an art exhibition here should address this situation, which has been an unremitting reality on the island, and a pressing, unresolved issue for the whole of Europe. The exhibition focuses on the issue of the refugee crisis and forced migration by bringing together a group of artists, photographers, filmmakers and activists who offer different reactions, reflections, and analyses on the subject. Bringing together diverse practices from installation, performance, photography, film, video and photojournalism, the participants in the exhibition largely transcend one-sided and standardised media representations of the crisis (mostly consisting of rickety boats and images related to the perilous sea crossing) and look into the before and after [of] this dramatic moment.
There follows a meticulous and insightful analysis of the media coverage, the geopolitical shifts, and the finances and politics associated with the war in Syria and the forced migration of millions of people. Europe’s role is thoroughly examined with no indulgence granted to the newly sensitized audiences.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan, and Ben Rubin, in collaboration with Stewart Smith and Robert Gerard Pietrusko, Exit, 2008–2015
A central piece in the exhibition structure is an immersive video and audio installation titled Exit. It was created by American artists and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with architect-artist Laura Kurgan, statistician-artist Mark Hansen, and media artist Ben Rubin. Based on a question by Paul Virilio—“What is left of our native land?”—the installation visualizes the current migration flows as well as their causes and consequences on a global scale. Informed by data from over 100 sources, Exit showcases huge population displacements, either for political and financial reasons or environmental ones.
Perhaps most interesting is that a number of participating artists have themselves experienced similar traumatic events. Their practices are juxtaposed with the exploitative paradigm, which Gregos denounces from the start:
In the contemporary art world, the refugee crisis has unfortunately engendered opportunism, with some rushing in to profess their engagement by producing facile one-liners and generating publicity for their own sake. This exhibition, rather, includes artists who opt for a nuanced way of working with these highly sensitive issues, who stay under the radar, working with discretion, thoughtfulness and beneficence. Many of the participants come from the Middle East or south-eastern Europe, from countries that have experienced war, trauma, exodus and perilousness first hand.
Courtesy Yanni Behrakis/Reuters
Yannis Behrakis’ photographs offer a documentary strategy in representing the refugee crisis. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who has worked for Reuters since 1987, Behrakis moved back to Athens in 2010 in order to cover the financial crisis, only to find out that in 2015 the migration flows would flood the Greek coastline. Striking images of high aesthetic value register world-shaking events and moments of extreme emotional tension, inciting effortless, spontaneous feelings of empathy. Behrakis’ photographs are projected on a large screen. Reflecting their intended context, newspaper headlines and printed-out webpages featuring his work are presented in an adjacent vitrine.
Outside the exhibition space visitors find the Hungarian-Syrian artist Róza El-Hassan’s Adobe House. This type of mud brick house was common in villages of northern Syria and according to the artist, the simple, high-dome “adobe” was also how her ancestors used to live. El-Hassan contemplates the rebuilding of Syria, proposing an elementary type of eco-architecture derived from thousands of years of local craftsmanship. For the construction of her Samos installation she used local materials and collaborated with local builders, passing on the Syrian craft to a new region and generation—speaking to the movement of knowledge that parallels the movement of bodies across the globe.
Ninar Esber, Torso II, 2016, Installation view of A World Not Ours, Schwartz Foundation. Photo: Panos Kokkinias
Ninar Esber, born in Beirut, shows an outsized shiny necklace in the text-based work Torso II; the sculpture, made of polished-brass mirror, reports the names given by US, Israeli, French, and British militaries to their operations in the Middle East since 1948: “Infinite Justice,” “Grapes of Wrath,” and “Peace for Galilee” are just a few examples. Playing on the stark contradiction between form, signifier, and signified, Esber highlights powerful countries’ sanguinary interventions in sensitive geographical areas and thus points to their often under-recognized share of responsibility.
The exhibition dares to take a straightforward look and at the same time make a subtle statement about the highly sensitive issue of the refugee crisis. Other artworks illustrate family stories related to Greek refugee flows during the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, such as Marina Giwti’s Saint Marina, or comprise interviews of present-day refugees, as in the case of work by Sallie Latch, a self-taught American artist, activist, and volunteer in Samos. The show thinks deeply about the optics and ethics of representing and responding artistically to trauma and crisis. And with public screenings, guided tours, and educational programs, A World Not Ours makes it clear that it means to become a part of locals’ everyday life. Nevertheless, it is unable to answer whether it is those islanders on Samos who need to be engaged, policy makers in Brussels and across Europe, or the eyeballs of social media users around the world.
In this essay I have outlined prominent artworks and exhibitions on the refugee and political crises in Greece in order to open up some space for discussion, while omitting exploitative visual representations (e.g., Ai Weiwei as a dead child or Charlize Theron donning an emergency blanket). These examples can hopefully help us formulate and better understand some criteria of artistic, social, and political evaluation for artistic and curatorial practices developed in this growing corner of the art world. As the problem persists, viewpoints and positions shift: solidarity rises among common people who are fully aware that their own ancestors may have come from far away fleeing some untold calamity; at the same time, far right xenophobic rhetoric seeks to exploit fears and tensions intensified by crisis.
In such circumstances, it no doubt takes a great deal of sensitivity, modesty, and self-reflection to touch upon human tragedy without leaving yet another terrible imprint on it. And while many artists and cultural practitioners genuinely strive to come to grips with harsh reality, some can only make an aesthetics of horror from it. Art is unlikely to change the world, but it can definitely reflect our ideals of making it a more humane place to live in. Instead of drawing conclusions about a phenomenon that is very much ongoing and evolving, I quote here the final lines from an episode of Juice Rap News:
“Some day, historians will look back and label this The age of mass displacements, and assess how we handled it. Will they condemn our blindness; or celebrate our vision and humanity? That’s up to us in the present, where History is Happening.”
Updated, August 29: Shortly after this article was written, the Greek representation at 57th VeniceBiennale was announced; George Drivas, the featuring artist, will present the film work Workshop of Dilemmas, curated by Orestis Andreadakis. This much-anticipated artistic response to the refugee crisis, a narrative installation on the agony of the “host” in front of a potentially threatening “guest,” will shift focus onto countries receiving the migration flows, contributing greatly to the above discussion.
Anthi Argyriou is a curator and art theorist based in Thessaloniki, Greece. She has curated exhibitions in museums, visual art festivals and art galleries, while she has also coordinated educational programs and international conferences in Amsterdam and Thessaloniki on issues of cultural theory and contemporary artistic practices.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A self-conscious avatar, pair of floating lips, and President Obama walk into an art show…
What seems like the beginning to a potentially funny joke is actually half of the nearly mirthless exhibition Suspended Animation at the Hirshhorn Museum. Eschewing humor as a staple of animation and postmodern critical tool, the show soberly promises to introduce the audience to six contemporary artists using computer animation to “challenge conceptions of reality” and “explore...the impact of virtual worlds on tangible physical experience or the digitization of identity.” The show achieves its aims with mixed accomplishment. The most successful works embody a useful model for alternative mental mapping and raise timely ethical concerns for the future of digital appropriation, while others contain elements that undermine their critical and exploratory relevance. What is the impact of digitized identities if they are devoid of meaningful stakes or situations that can shape how we act and think?
Agnieszka Polska, Still from I Am the Mouth, 2014. Courtesy of ŻAK | BRANICKA, Berlin
We begin in a black box. A darkened narrow room hugs us closer to a large projection of disembodied lips. In Agnieszka Polska’s I Am the Mouth (2014), a mouth—superimposed over an undulating body of water—recites excerpts from a scientific text on sound waves, speaking with hypnotic cadences. She attempts to understand her essence (as an artwork) and (digital) impact on the (physical) world. Because the animated mouth possesses neither real agency nor consciousness, the reflection feels Descartes-lite—or rather, like simulated Cartesian thought in order to appear self-aware. The work is engaging less for its self-referential quasi-essentialism and more for its aesthetic virtues: with its haunting rhythmic speech, tranquil moving water, and enticing bright colors, the video could still enrapture audiences with a reading of U.S. tax codes. It is not the animated figure that impacts the world as the monologue suggests, but rather the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)-inspired sounds her voice produces. Ironically, her visual presence is almost rendered unnecessary.
Helen Marten, Still from Orchids, or a Hemispherical Bottom, 2013. Courtesy of the artist; Sadie Coles HQ, London; Greene Naftali, New York; Johann Koenig, Berlin; and T293, Rome/Naples
This cannot be said of the video in the adjoining room. Undoubtedly, some people will roll their eyes or pull their hair when watching Helen Marten’s Orchids, or a Hemispherical Bottom (2013). Some will shrug at the floating cat, classical art buttocks, or origami toad, and shortly move on. The Surrealist video progresses for nearly 20 minutes through an array of digitally created objects while a narrator tangentially rambles on a variety of topics (sensuality, heroism, cat food, etc). Such seeming incoherence is frustrating until you realize the work offers a model for reorienting our preconceptions of how we build connections in our lives among things we encounter. The collage-like process, aided by the ability to digitally create and transform any object in ways that may not be physically possible, is not dissimilar to Haruki Murakami’s writing process, which the author described in a Paris Review interview: “I get some images and I connect one piece to another. That’s the storyline.” The result is an atypical way of thinking that may expand how you make sense of your own experiences. Paying attention to the loose associations created by an uninhibited stream-of-consciousness may break up habitual thought, and make us more receptive to creative, non-instrumental thinking and problem-solving. With all of this in mind, Marten’s work still tries the viewer’s patience. The longer it advances through incoherence, the more viewer confidence in a payoff may wane. But ultimately, viewers should see the specific details of the video as less important than the process, which offers an alternative model for mental mapping.
Ed Atkins, Still from Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013. Courtesy of the artist; Cabinet, London; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin; and Dépendance, Brussels
Speaking of mental, Ed Atkins’ Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013) feels like being trapped inside someone’s head. An isolated figure seated in a fluid room compulsively repeats Gilbert Sorrentino’s poem “The Morning Roundup,” fusing wistful memory and defiance. The artist used motion-capture technology to create this avatar-ish protagonist whose meta-winking reminiscence of lost friends and sunnier days borders on the uncanny. We know the character is merely a fabrication, but we can’t help but empathize with his very real, human pain. Occasional text and voice-over narration excursively speculate on the nature of this human digital copy (“A compromised surrogate for REAL fucking experience”).
We would be ready to accept the figure as having an existence of his own (though in a virtual world) if he had a modicum of agency. But he doesn’t. His existence is scripted, doomed to repeat his obsession for however long the video file that contains him is cycled through the museum projector. His value as an alter-identity is metaphorical only and limited by his closed circuit. Artists and programmers like Angela Washko and Zoë Quinn have used animated avatars, communicating within animation and gaming platforms to challenge and influence those communities’ perceptions on issues such as feminism, race, sexuality, and mental health. Perhaps one day, people will use motion-capture technology, like Atkins, to create virtual identities and interact meaningfully with each other in a virtual world to create a positive, tolerant space for those identities in the non-virtual one. Until then, the artifice is merely entertaining and perhaps modestly therapeutic.
Antoine Catala, Installation view of The Pleasure of Being Sad, 2016, in Suspended Animation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2016. Photo: Cathy Carver
Antoine Catala’s The Pleasure of Being Sad (2016) wants you to cry, but serenely. Conceived as a propaganda video against a future social norm aimed at eliminating sadness, tearful models evince a rare smile through their wet faces. A panel of embossed teardrop shapes occasionally appear within the screen. The effect is meant to reinforce the concept of sadness and perhaps hint at the idea of future objects (such as a projection screen) physically embodying the affective emotional states they are transmitting. But the result is a little cheesy and entirely unnecessary. There is definitely something unsettling about watching people cry. However, the pseudo-cultural resistance that the video represents is subverted by the notion that people should look for or glean pleasure from being sad. The video becomes complicit with the hegemony’s avoidance of pain. Sometimes sadness is not pleasurable at all, but can be equally valuable as being happy.
Josh Kline, Installation view of Patriot Acts, 2015, and Hope and Change, 2015, in Suspended Animation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2016. Photo: Cathy Carver
Have you ever felt hope and fear simultaneously? If not, I recommend seeing Suspended Animation for Josh Kline’s work alone. It will startle you. Hope and Change (2015) stands out as one of the most ethically questionable future uses of digital technology. In the video, President Obama gives a speech from his 2009 inaugural address. Only this time his words foretell things to come—Republican obstructionism and the Occupy Movement—and opportunities missed, like holding accountable those responsible for the recent financial disaster. The effect of collapsing time is truly uncanny at first. To accomplish this, Kline hired a former Obama speechwriter to re-write Obama’s inaugural speech with the clarity of hindsight. He then face-mapped Obama’s face onto that of an impersonator delivering the speech. Save for the appearance of technical glitches from the face-mapping, minor voice variations, and the speech’s slippage of time, the transformation is believable.
And here is where technology and ethics duke it out, truly challenging our conceptions of “reality,” as the exhibition promises. Most conversations on appropriation center around ownership of content, such as college athletes’ likenesses in the NCAA video game lawsuit or the Pictures Generation’s use of copyrighted material. But there is something far more troubling at stake in Kline’s work: truth. Because we have become accustomed to the manipulation of images via Photoshop or benign CGI stand-ins for actors, we often forget that attacks on facts can have significant consequences. Just look at the impact on perceptions and policies that the American far right’s willful disdain for facts has created. Sure, we may be able to identify a doctored document now, but it is not hard to imagine face-mapping technology becoming more accurate and flawless. Will advanced uses of such technology create false representations of others, of you? Suddenly entered into the world as historical documents are videos of you saying or doing reprehensible, humiliating, or illegal things. More than a simple photograph’s visual likeness, the video would also replicate your gestures and speech patterns. How would such digital appropriations of people’s likeness impact our judicial system, where video evidence is often proffered as proof of innocence or guilt? We’d like to believe that traces of video manipulation would be detectable by authorities, but what if technology gets to the point where such manipulation is seamless? This is truly scary. It does not seem that Hope and Change was meant to raise such frightening potential problems, but it does. And it is Kline’s marrying of face-mapping technology with an accomplished impersonator while willfully distorting historical facts that heralds this potential maelstrom.
Ian Cheng, Still from Emissary in the Squat of Gods, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London
Suspended Animation ends with Ian Cheng’s Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015), a live simulation whose premise and potential exceed the result. Cheng programmed “characters with basic behaviors within a virtual ecosystem” to influence each other without pre-scripted directions. It is a sci-art examination of the development of consciousness. In theory, these characters can utilize agency with budding intent to shape their environment. In reality, the characters repeat rudimentary actions akin to rituals and tasks. No matter what they do, any expression of agency is artificial since they were given “basic behaviors” and environmental limitations that will inevitably shape what they do. Some cognitive scientists would argue that human beings are born with inevitable behavioral characteristics (some of which are genetically unique and others which are shared by all human beings) just as these virtual characters are “born” with certain traits. However, the programmed virtual world these characters live in and the range of possible actions within it are far more limited. The metaphorical resonance is not even close. Cheng should continue to pursue his work. As it gains greater complexity the more interesting and relatable it will become. But for now, it is in its infancy.
Suspended Animation introduces audiences to a short variety of artful uses of computer animation. But many of the works undercut their concepts or rely too heavily on a metaphor of agency as a substitution for real agency. In an interview, curator Gianni Jetzer claims “the strength of this show” is in how bodies are represented digitally. I disagree. Digital representations devolve into mere entertainment without consequence if they lack meaningful stakes or situations that can influence how we think and act. All of the work in the show is entertaining on some level, but fortunately Marten and Kline offer two examples of computer animation that can directly impact our lives—one cognitively, the other ethically. Now armed with this knowledge, the question is: what do we do?
One of the most satisfying things about September is watching the event listings in our calendar creep up from summer’s dearth and transform into the absolute glut of openings that is the Fall art season. You’ll be spoiled for choice this autumn, with galleries and museums staging their best.
From our calendar to yours, these are the shows at museums and art spaces in the U.S. and further afield we’re most excited to see this season.
Get the most out of the ArtSlant Calendar! Plan gallery and museum trips, map venues and events, share exhibitions with friends, and follow your favorite artists by using our mylist and artist watchlist features.
Xaviera López is a Chilean animator who was an early adopter of the short video app Vine. Alongside a few likeminded souls she helped reveal the creative potential of the deceptively limited platform. The challenge of packing ideas, depth, and emotion into a maximum of six seconds has lead to a new visual language that has spread across all motion-based mediums.
López creates hallucinatory, visual poems that expertly utilize traditional drawing and animation techniques in a uniquely modern way. Her animations are unwaveringly personal representations of her own mentality and physicality. They could be seen a radical explosion of the concept of the “selfie” where narcissism is replaced with thoughtful examination. Working within Vine’s limitations, she makes rare alchemy, combining instant, universal visual joy and emotional depth.
I spoke to López about learning to love social media, being an artist in Chile, how long it takes to make a six-second animation.
Christian Petersen: When did you first realize that you had a talent for drawing?
Xaviera López: My father was a very creative person, a skilled draftsman who also collected pencils and books. He would accidentally spill coffee on his journal and turn the spot into a realistic drawing, or take me exploring places where he would draw everything that caught his attention. He was a great photographer too, but drawing was a way to capture the world according to his own subjectivity. I would carefully observe and fall in love with the technique and possibilities.
I started drawing regularly at age four and tracing or copying images from books or magazines to understand proportions and shapes. When I was five years old I won the first prize on a drawing contest and walked home with a gold medal, a huge smile and—what back then felt like—a mountain of art supplies.
Of course there was a moment in school where I was labeled as "artist" because I was able to make realistic stuff and had an imagination, but it wasn't really appreciated (like sports or sciences) so it was not a big deal. More than realizing I had a talent, what was important is that I loved it. The bar was pretty high, not only because of the quality of my father’s drawings but because I was also looking at the work of people like Da Vinci or Dürer, so I knew I had to practice for the rest of my life if I ever really wanted to be great. I think it’s the love and admiration that allowed me then (and now) to overcome frustration and keep on working regardless of the results.
CP: What inspired you to start making animations?
XL: Back in art college I learned about video and different animation techniques, while developing a fascination with moving images. I found it was easier to communicate complex and paradoxical realities.
Using my passion for drawing, I discovered that animating my ideas was a process of pure joy. Literally, this is about giving a soul to something that didn't have one, and movement seemed like such a natural step because nothing is still. Every time I see something finished, I feel all kinds of butterflies and fireworks and I don’t really care about the amount of effort or time I put into it.
CP: When did you become aware of using the internet for creative expression?
XL: I’ve always been amazed by the internet. The last invention that radically changed the way information is distributed was Gutenberg’s print 500 years ago, and I think we’re witnessing the same kind of revolution on a much larger scale, which in my opinion is just the beginning. It’s such an interesting era to be alive because as most information is fully available we have to start looking for new dimensions of life.
Net Art was the first approach I had to internet and creation, so I saw it from the beginning as another medium to create artwork. I was not at all into social media because of the typical judgments we make: it’s about food, bad jokes, selfies, and a crazy hyper-curated reality, but after lots of frustration trying to make the usual path as an artist, I thought it might be a good way to achieve visibility outside of my geographical place (Chile). Social media is a tool, we can use it however we like it. This may seem obvious to some but I took a while to realize it.
XL: Yes, and it wasn’t a fully conscious choice. As I always do, I got very excited and inspired about it, and just followed this excitement and inspiration.
I was really happy while I was in college. All that disinterested experimentation, study and hard work was something I was very comfortable with. After college I worked for a few years as art director for advertising and I learned a lot but nearly forgot about my personal work. Despite feeling constantly uncomfortable about it, I thought it was just real life and I had to deal with it.
In 2013, I was casually introduced to Vine by my sister and I got obsessed with the app: everything I loved and had previously done was there, so I started spending all my spare time making vines while reconnecting with all the materials, techniques, and ideas that once had made sense to me. Doing this actually changed my life.
CP: Was there a Vine animation community that you were involved in?
XL: Very much! Vine was really challenging because there were technical limitations. It was only possible to create in-app, so you had to make stop motion animations by tapping very precisely on the screen. I didn't have any professional equipment so I used to tape my phone to jars or trees and use all sorts of tricks to get good lighting and steadiness. We all had the same limitations, but there were people doing outstanding creative work and constantly redefining what could be done despite the restrictions. At that time it was a relatively small community so it was easy to communicate. Everyone was generous to share tricks, give advice, or comment on each other’s work. I felt I was part of a community where we were all doing this new thing and equally excited and obsessed about it.
XL: This is such a crazy story. My kiss animation was chosen as an Editor’s Picks on Vine. This was a huge accomplishment for me, but it also meant that the animation went slightly viral (not like a meme or a funny video, but it was exposed to a lot of people). Someone stole this animation and turned it into a gif, and it was everywhere. My sister, who is really good at marketing and strategy said it was time for me to open profiles on other platforms and make myself a Giphy account. I was on my couch, procrastinating because I was very upset about people stealing my work, when I got an email from Giphy offering me a featured user account. I couldn't believe it, and that’s how I made a gif version of all my animations, that very same day, after some celebratory dance.
CP: When did you first realize that your work was becoming popular?
XL: On Vine there’s a loop counter so you can track the activity in real time. This is really silly, but I remember looking at the loop counter and feeling less alone because there was someone else looking at one of my videos at the same time than I was. Well, one day instead of one person there were lots of people and I imagined a big introverted anonymous party.
CP: Your animations are very psychedelic—is that something you are interested in generally?
XL: Etymologically (psyche-mind + deloun-make visible, reveal) yes, absolutely. I’m very interested in the inner invisible worlds and through my work, I try to reveal them to myself and hopefully others.
About drugs: I’m a very sensitive person and even coffee hits me twice as hard. I’ve had awful experiences with marijuana and alcohol, so I’m not into any kind of substance if the purpose is to numb yourself or evade reality. I’ll have a beer or wine to share with friends. Ayahuasca or mushrooms (I don’t even think they’re drugs), taken with a purpose and in a ritual context are a whole different thing. I did both once and it was beautiful, like a big hug from the universe.
CP: Do you see your animations as a direct representation of your mental state?
XL: All the initial ideas come from my journals. They are always about my inner life in relation to specific things I see and gather from the outside world. Everything is an ongoing self-portrait that registers meaningful things. Sometimes my animations turn out to be exactly as I first visualized them and sometimes they become something else—similar but different. It’s a great way to process emotions and experiences, because it’s delicate and focused work. Then there’s the final result, always unexpected in a way. I also enjoy how people receive my animations, which makes me see other nuances and gives me new things to think about.
I honestly have no idea what my work says about me as a person, I just go and do whatever I feel like doing. You can tell that I’m focused and a hard-worker (maybe sensitive? romantic?) but other than that, I may have to ask...
CP: Is it a challenge to express specific personal, emotional feelings in very short animations?
XL: I think that Vine has been excellent training for me to learn to say something in a very short time. At first, it was difficult for me and I guess that’s why my first vines were kind of flat and decorative. However, after practicing regularly for about three years it is getting easier to put ideas and feelings more effectively a into short format video.
About working with the personal, I’m comfortable because images have more ambiguity than words, and viewers give their own meaning to what I do and relate in their own way. I think it’s very interesting to share something personal and get to see how others view it. This is another advantage of the internet: people feel free to speak their minds.
CP: How long does it generally take to make an animation?
XL: It all starts with an idea. Then I usually sketch it and figure out how am I going to make it. After that it takes from 8 to 72 hours of drawing for 6 seconds of animation.
CP: What’s the art scene like in Chile?
XL: I’m not the right person to answer this question because my last exhibition here was in 2009 I believe, but I can say there are lots of tremendously talented artists and not that many opportunities down here as this is a very small country. The usual path to make it as an artist (or any "alternative" occupation) is to actually leave the country, but I think this is slowly changing. Here the arts field is very precarious and there is no such thing as an artist career, so you just have to believe in yourself (cliché but so true!) and keep on making the work that you want to make despite all the limitations, which is good in a way because you become resourceful and stubborn.
CP: Do you feel a part of the global new media art community?
XL: I feel completely part of it. On the internet, I’ve met many talented and cool people that I share similar ideas and visions with and we talk very often. I’d love to meet some of my friends from Vine in real life but I’m at least ten hours away (on a plane) from anybody and I don’t like it. One of these days I’m just going to go visiting all my friends.
CP: What else do you do besides your personal art?
XL: I draw around eight hours per day so there’s not much time left. I’ve been practicing Yoga for about ten years now, I even did a two-year teacher training program because I wanted to know more about the non-physical aspects of it, which is substantial. I practice every day and I love it because it keeps me grounded and calm. Whenever I can, I try to do physical activities such as walking or dancing because what I do is pretty sedentary and I have a lot of energy: if I don’t move enough, I don’t sleep.
For the last few years, I've been mentoring a teenage girl to make her animations and it’s been great. I’m very proud of her! Other than that, I watch movies, read books, go to every art exhibition I can. I also listen to podcasts and write a lot, but only for myself. Once a week I go to psychological therapy which I enjoy very much in a strange way, because of course it’s not always nice.
CP: What projects are you currently working on?
XL: I’m working on a couple of branded projects, I’m doing the animations for a documentary about women filmmakers, the illustrations for a poetry book, and a music video. In conjunction with my contracted projects, I am always working on personal animations and illustrations as well.
CP: What would your dream project be?
XL: Ughh, so many but I’m on my way there! I would like to make a movie, paint murals, make jewelry, dresses, installations, everything! I want to work with interesting people and I’d love to find a way to give back what has been given to me, which I think is a lot. I feel like doing something (artistic or educational) for young girls: I want them to love themselves, to be strong and creative.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
An old Norwegian woman in a green and silver Smurf costume, paint smeared on her face, is making chocolate cookies in an underground-bunker-turned-car-park. Standing behind her, contributing to the cookery process, is a parrot-masked performer, stirring the mixture and slapping flour-dusted hands together.
It’s the haphazard sort of mayhem that Marvin Gaye Chetwynd has become known for producing throughout her career, and which saw her nominated for the Turner Prize in 2012. This particular performance is the second episode of a trilogy, taking place over the course of a year as part of the Bergen Assembly, a program of perennial art production and research taking place in the Norwegian harbor city.
It all started in 2009, when Bergen hosted its “Biennial Conference” to consider the biennial format’s critical merits and flaws. As a response, the Bergen Assembly was founded with a more constant mode of production in mind. Each edition, of which 2016 is the second iteration, culminates around public programming events every three years. True to the spirit of the original conference, the Assembly is a extensive project, whose mission is as much to question and research new ways of looking at art as it is to present them. The latest edition sees three artistic directors, or “convenors”—freethought, PRAXES, and Tarek Atoui—each with their own distinct curatorial projects that are artistic rabbit holes in their own right. The aforementioned Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, and Lynda Benglis, for example, were invited to participate by PRAXES. Considering how much she had learned in her work in the previous decade, Chetwynd realized those with forty years more experience would have exponentially more to teach her. The British artist has taken inspiration from the community of elderly artists in Bergen, who helped realize The Cell Group—a rambling, weird experience that seemed to initiate its audience into a cult or activist cell.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, The Cell Group (Episode Two), Performance at the Bergen Assembly 2016, St. Jørgens Shelter, Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift
In general, the diverse and research-based approach at the Assembly means it can be difficult to draw threads from the different convenors’ work together into something more than a group of sporadic works. One point that gradually becomes clear, however, is the inspiration and education that the communities of Bergen have provided for new work by artists. As in Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s practice, the notion of learning—but also teaching, and un-learning—is a common refrain. It seems that the Assembly’s attitude of ongoing research has infected its artists and participants: given the opportunity to create something beyond the time constraints of a traditional biennial, many of the artists’ projects engage with the local community in much more permanent ways.
For example, the six-person curatorial collective freethought chose to name their section of the Assembly “infrastructure” and consider the impact this voluminous, yet imperative, concept has on contemporary life. This loose collective of curators and academics has worked collaboratively on a project around the fire station in Bergen—a contentious site in the Norwegian city, which has burned down many times over its history, including twice in the last century. Given this background and the fact that most of the houses in Bergen are still made of wood, the older firefighters have been petitioning for the old fire station to be turned into a fire museum, for both educational and archival purposes. Freethought have built on this activism and commissioned a research archive, Isa Rosenberger’s The Museum of Burning Questions, which documents the firefighters’ concerns about the city and its needs through video and texts in the Kunsthalle Bergen. Meanwhile the old fire station itself has been turned into a café, named after and inspired by the Partisan Coffee House, a locus for idea exchange run by a group of intellectuals and artists from 1958-62 in London.
(left) Bergen Fire Station, Bergen Assembly 2016 venue. Photo: Linn Heidi Stokkedal (right) Ranjit Kandalgaonkar, Bulker: In the wake of Shipping Infrastructure, Shipping and the Shipped, 2015, Giclee print on canvas. Courtesy of the artist
The accompanying exhibition takes several different project-based themes as starting points: Norway’s oil production, its history in the shipping industry, and Iran’s utopian Shiraz-Persepolis festival of 1960/70s. Much of the actual material exhibited is ephemera—for example, correspondence from the figures surrounding the founding of the Partisan Coffee House and its historical maintenance. This idealistic moment is also reflected in the café that the curators have instigated as a space for knowledge exchange.
In this spirit of discovery and learning, freethought seeks to bring the concerns of the academy to a more general audience, taking these research projects out of the ivory towers and into the streets. It’s a lot to attempt, and the results in Bergen sometimes reveal the limitations of representing research-based practices. While academics often think they are making things accessible to everyone, a bubble often encloses these concepts so fully that it’s hard for them to tell just how much effort this requires on the part of their audience. The sheer quantity of information required to tell the researchers’ story—museum-style tables of documents and stills from documentaries—means there’s a lot of quiet parsing to be done by the individual.
One of the more successful works is a fascinating series of videos, The Anecdoted Archive of Exhibition Lives, which asks talking heads from across the world to talk about an exhibition that shaped them and, often, their work. These glimpses of humanity, of gut feeling and reality, are all the more striking for their academic surroundings.
Tarek Atoui, Sound Massage Workshop with Thierry Madiot at Grieg Academy, University of Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift
Convenor Tarek Atoui’s work WITHIN attempts to bring the work he has done with deaf people in the Middle East during his long-term residency at the Sharjah Art Foundation to the Norwegian coast. Atoui requested designs from sound artists that attempt to imagine how deaf people could best play and listen to music, without using their ears. Traditional efforts in this arena have focused on amplifying the sounds of phonocentric music, whereas Atoui’s instruments allow musicians—deaf or hearing—to play in a way that caters to the visual and tactile ways that sound can be perceived without using one’s ears. These instruments, with evocative names such as “33 Soft Cells” and “The Sound Massage Kit” will be activated through a series of performances in the month of September, including the opening night’s performance of a piece composed by electronic music legend Pauline Oliveros.
The development of the instruments was all based around exploration with deaf students in the local school, and their input shaped the design of the instruments. In one of the most exciting moments of the whole Assembly, several deaf practitioners performed the instruments. Just as in freethought’s case, involving the local community is where Atoui’s project becomes most fruitful. Turnout on the opening night’s performance certainly reflected that. At the end, the entire audience applauded using sign language: quivering their open palms in front of them.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, The Cell Group (Episode Two), Performance at the Bergen Assembly 2016, St. Jørgens Shelter, Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift
There are many different ways that people learn and come to understand things for themselves. But in order to gain a full understanding we all need to connect knowledge with experience. Feeling the learning, whether that’s visual, tactile, or emotional, is what makes education sparkle into being. At this Bergen Assembly, artists have learned from Bergen’s generous elders, students, and its buzzing creative community. The next, critical step is getting that learning across to their audience. While lengthy research and in-depth analysis allows artists and curators to get to the bottom of their craft, it asks a lot from an audience. Sometimes, we need the spectacle.
Istanbul-based Haydi Roket is part of a rising wave of new media artists turning their hands to the curation of online digital art shows. He launched his latest show Virtual Dream earlier this week. Virtual Dream features 30 artists (full disclosure: I am one of them) exploring the tensions and inconsistencies between our real and our increasingly dominant digital lives.
Most online experiences consist of a seemingly random sequence of abstract images and ideas, much like our “real” dreams. The show, seen as a whole, gives us a fascinating overview of the digital dream state that many of us have unavoidably succumbed to. It also vitally reflects the massive creative impact that the virtual world has had on a whole generation of artists.
I spoke to Roket about his inspiration for Virtual Dream, his work with the influential Wrong Biennial, and how he got his start in online curation.
Christian Petersen: What was your first experience of digital/new media art and why were you attracted to it?
Haydi Roket: My first introduction to the digital arts was with Deluxe Paint. I was designing logos for the intros of our Amiga crack scene group. I was impressed with computer arts from first sight so I was easily attracted to it.
CP: When did you start using a computer to make art? What did you make?
HR: I think it was 1994. I first started making sprites [bitmap graphics designed to be part of a larger scene, often characters and objects] for shoot 'em up games I was making using game makers.
CP: What was the first new media art show you curated?
HR: I curated Hypermedia Dreams in 2015 for The Wrong: New Digital Art Biennale. We worked with more than 30 artists who are very important in their own mediums. The Wrong was really big! It was the biggest event held in this medium. All the hundreds of participants got thousands of submissions and it got a lot of attention and support. Being a part of it and working with these awesome people was an excellent experience. After that I curated for the Istanbul branch of 6PM Your Local Time Europe. Virtual Dream will be my third curating experience.
CP: What are the unique challenges to curating online art shows?
HR: Since I haven't curated a real life show, the only struggles I have had are online difficulties: struggles like getting people together, being in contact with them all, and following deadlines. I can also say things like taking responsibility, designing the website, dealing with the domain, etc.
CP: Why do you think online shows are important?
HR: Online shows are really important for exhibiting digital art. I also think it's much cooler. I'm sure in the next few years, with the development of virtual reality, there will be even more excellent online events happening. In the near future when everything goes digital maybe people will look back at the things we had done before and say “wow look at the stuff these guys dealt with.” :)
I don't know. Maybe they will respect the things we have done, but the technology and the evolution of digital arts is unstoppable and that's why all artists should organize more online events and support them.
CP: What are your thoughts on making money from digital art?
HR: Making money out of digital arts is rarely easy; most of the time it’s really hard. Some brands are working with artists on projects from the beginning. If you are good and lucky enough you can make good money from it. But it’s still unclear how digital arts will be sold, and since it’s not a physical thing you can touch people still consider whether they should invest in it or not. I think in the near future all these problems will vanish. We just need to be patient.
CP: What online art shows do you think have been done best?
HR: I would say The Wrong and SPAMM because of their courageous set-ups for digital arts in the early days.
CP: Tell us a little about the idea behind Virtual Dream.
HR: I think we all live this virtual dream. In these days we live in the online world more, expressing and sharing our thoughts and memories in the virtual world. People’s virtual identities have surpassed their real identities; people started caring about their virtual lives more than their real lives. They live thinking about how to shine their virtual personalities and feed it as if it’s a mandatory thing. All this virtual happiness and memories that they create control their lives, and people compulsorily live in this unlimited world. That is the virtual dream.
HR: I still create GIFs. However, it’s not as much as it used to be. Apart from the freelance stuff that I do and things I prepare for various events, there is one project that I’m working on and it will make this virtual world very happy. I can only say that for now. I hope if everything goes according to plan I will put it into practice around the middle of next year.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(Image at top: Hexiosis. All images from Virtual Dream)