Doing It Ourselves

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The spirit of D-I-Y is one widely embraced by activists. Not to bracket the importance of collective social action, the idea of "doing it yourself" conjures a sense of taking responsibility for a scenario, and productively taking matters into one's own hands. For this reason, cookbooks, toolboxes, and user manuals are common formal metaphors in tactical media projects focused on mirroring extant tools and techniques to effect change. A new exhibition at Vancouver's Western Front gallery (whose mission is "promoting the role of the artist in determining the cultural ecology"), entitled "Kits for an Encounter" explores the medium of the the kit. Typically portable, efficient, and therefore easily deployable, these are a hybrid between political first aid kits and situationist magic hats. Each of the nine artists present a different take on the kit, ranging from MacGyveresque problem-solving to the fantastical creation of utopian encounters. Azra Aksamija's Nomadic Mosque comments on both the borders of religious communities, and the portability of spiritual identity. The piece "unfolds from a fashionable women's semi-formal [outfit] into a minimal mosque which the artist-architect spatio-temporally demarcates as a prayer rug for two, head covering, compass, and prayer beads." Judi Werthein's Brinco is a tennis shoe "equipped with a flashlight, compass, [and] painkillers to enable those illegally crossing the US-Mexico border." The sneaky sneakers will be sold at boutiques with profits going towards distribution of the "cross trainers" to border crossers. Vahida Ramujkic's Assimil is a textbook "whose exercises and lesson plans 'teach' non-European Union citizens how to properly enter and assimilate into the EU." Each of these works, and additional projects by Steven Brekelmans, Limor Fried, Max Goldfarb, Janice Kerbel, Lize Mogel, and Noam Toran comment on personal space, skill and empowerment, and the deeper import of seemingly small ...

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Putting the Hustle and Flow in Check

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Cars have turned our zen garden sandbox of a landscape into a systematically ravaged ant farm. The impetus to transport goods cheaply and "effectively" has brought roads and motorized vehicles that have wiped out communities, histories, and wide swathes of flora, fauna, and the atmosphere. Artists Ryan Griffis and Claude Willey have both concerned themselves with such disappearances, whether it is public space or atmospheric moisture that is evaporating in response to the encroachment of new technologies and the environmentally-corrupt corporations that wield them. This week they collaborated to open an exhibition of "cultural projects focusing on the problems of mobility and energy." Presented by Green Museum, an online environmental museum, "Conducting Mobility" includes internet-based works by Brian Collier, Free Soil, Amy Balkin/Kim Stringfellow/Tim Halbur/Greenaction/Pond, kanarinka, Michael Mandiberg, Laurie Palmer, Platform, Josephine Starrs/Leon Cmielewski. The show uses the United States' problems as a tip-off point, while also commenting on the extent to which we've exported our fuel-consumption patterns and other transportation-related disasters to other countries, citing India and China as key examples of foreign "ecosystems plundered by our unquenchable energy needs." The organizers point out an ironic, if very sad pattern in this model, which is that it's not only tourism, migration, and military conflict that keeps people "on the move," but environmental disasters themselves. Westerners have a way of simply moving campgrounds and keeping the eco-hating party rolling when things turn ugly in our own backyard. At this point, things are already so bad, that it can be easy to feel pessimistic about the future of our planet or what one might do to help. Griffis and Willey offer this show as a call to action, stating, "It falls to all of us as global citizens to redirect our governing institutions and ...

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Off the Grid, Into the Air

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On view at the Neuberger Museum of Art, through June 1st, is a group show entitled "Off the Grid," which presents the work of thirteen artists injecting a sense of ecological responsibility into a world increasingly polluted by an obsession with power, energy, and wireless communication. In this case, the concept of "the grid" takes on multiple meanings. While it initially invokes the act of unplugging from a communications network, it also means escaping the rigid conventions artists have traditionally followed in addressing environmental issues. This is to say nothing of the historical role of the grid, in modern art, in entrenching the perspectives and organizing principles of machine culture. Curators Jacqueline Shilkoff (of the Neuberger Museum) and Galen Joseph-Hunter, Tianna Kennedy, and Tom Roe (of free103point9) say that they sought to include "contemporary works which formally and/or conceptually challenge conventional and commercial infrastructures"--a wise idea, since it is commercial enterprise that has delivered us to the messy environmental quandary in which we now find ourselves. These works include Seth Weiner's Cryptographic Payphone (2008), which "employs a chaotic motion system to encrypt wireless data transmission, modeled upon the patented use of lava lamps to generate random numbers for the creation of cryptographic codes;" Nina Katchadourian's Ant Static (2003), a continued exploration of inter-species collaboration in which a mass-mob of ants are assigned the creative role of meditating on the levels of competition and technological conflict found in nature; and Cary Peppermint and Christine Nadir's (a.k.a. EcoArtTech)'s Environmental Risk Assessment Rover-AT (2008), a "solar-powered, all-terrain mobile station that collects real-time risk data relative to its GPS coordinates," thus reacting to and changing its environment by projecting videos (cued by a 14-tier threat level system) onto immediate surfaces. Also included in the show are ...

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Life Transformations

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There's a very nepotistic event happening tonight at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (the new venue with a whopper of a name presenting great science-related art), and it looks good! Chris, Birgitta, and Geoff Bjornsson happen to be siblings with some shared interests--go figure, maybe they had similar childhoods--but they are each making distinct "artworks that represent living biological systems." The common thread in the work they'll present at tonight's panel, "Essence: Transfigure," is an interest in "transformation from one state to another," whether that shift happens in a single cell, an entire organism, or a larger ecosystem. The Bjornssons use a variety of media to address and imagine these transfigurations. Birgitta Bjornsson's project, The Space of Disgust employs photography, film, sculpture, installation, and drawing to explore the terrain between the idealized no-place of utopian environments and the reality of the disorder and decay wrought by the very nature of our own biological existence, if not our culture's compulsion to pollute. Real-life scientist Chris Bjornsson's The Illuminated Veil, uses "immunohistochemistry and spectral confocal microscopy to highlight specific cells within the brain." The end result is a series of large-scale microscopic images that seek to map and pinpoint the identifying characteristics and relationships between every cell of our brain. If Chris's creative impetus seems to entail an almost impossible feat, his brother Geoff Bjornsson's work is more fantastical. Inspired by a constellation of interests in minimal Japanese animation, science fiction, and the tradition of hand-crafting, his sculpture, Sleeping golem II, is a vessel made with the potential to "enshrine a spirit." The container sleeps until aroused by a spirit, though that spirit will suffer karmic damage by choosing the vessel as its home. Obvious mechanical challenges ensue... Each ...

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To Tell You the Truth....

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The Yes Men are now famous for excelling at the art of parasitic media. Led by two artists whose pseudonyms are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, they often work with numerous secret collaborators to pull-off interventions that expose corporate and governmental injustices--frequently revealing the fuzziness of the lines between the two. Following in the footsteps of their previous projects (concocted with fellow tactical media peers) under monikers that included RTMark, the Barbie Liberation Organization, and etoy, their grandly ambitious initiatives rely on the art of parody. Copying the source code of corrupt entities' websites and carefully adjusting the text and images to reveal embarrassing truths about their respective atrocities, the group has been able to successfully convince web surfers that they were agents of George W. Bush's first presidential campaign staff, the World Trade Organization, the US department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), ExxonMobil, Halliburton/KBR, and other groups. Perhaps their most successful coup was being invited to speak on behalf of Dow Chemical, on the BBC television news, prompting Dow to reply that they were not, in fact, taking responsibility for the disaster in Bhopal, as the Yes Men erroneously claimed. Such works make everyday, otherwise unspoken injustices front page news, and the group continues to succeed in pulling off what some dismiss as "pranks." Recently the Yes Men took a step that many of their subjects have been unable to take: They made a major apology. A representative of the trademark group at oil company and general environment-hurter BP recently emailed them to complain about the unauthorized site at http://www.theyesmen.org/agribusiness/beyondpetrol/ which bears "a remarkable similarity to the genuine www.bp.com website.... include[s] multiple reproductions of the BP logo," and possibly poses "a real risk... that genuine visitors could be ...

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"Design and the Elastic Mind" @ MoMA

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Adaptability has always been a distinctive feature of human intelligence, but as MoMA's new exhibition "Design and the Elastic Mind" claims, recent developments in science call for faster -- and, indeed, more elastic -- modes of social response. Beginning with a display on nanostructures and concluding with one about social and global networks, this ambitious exhibition examines the various scales on which our contemporary lives are led, and the way design can translate technological innovation into objects of everyday use. Aranda/Lasch's Rules of Six (2007), for example, foregrounds nanodesign's potential for self-assembly with a wall relief and images of nanostructures. Developed through simple rules and interactions, these structures offer provisional cases for the role such generative, modular organization may hold in the realms of architecture and design. On the human scale, Emili Padros for the emiliana design studio's NSS: Non-Stop Shoes (1999) is one of many projects to consider micro-solutions to energy conservation: high-top sneakers that store energy over their use to power lightbulbs and small, domestic appliances. Experiments on the social scale frequently focus on the interaction of individual users with a larger (often virtual) public, as with I Want You To Want Me (2007-ongoing), Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar's condensation of internet dating networks into an interactive, flatscreen display, and Fernanda Bertini Viegas, Martin Wattenberg and IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center's History Flow (2003), which visualizes user-generated revisions to Wikipedia topics. As Senior Curator Paola Antonelli points out in an essay accompanying the exhibition, the ability of virtual users to "break the temporal rhythms imposed by society in order to customize and personalize them" is one of the many ways that we are tackling technological novelty with a spirit of agency and play. - Tyler Coburn

Image: Fernanda Bertini Viegas, Martin Wattenberg and ...

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Unnatural Developments

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Currently on view at upstate New York's verdant Colgate University is an exhibition that ponders the ways in which new media artists can successfully address environmental concerns. Despite the fact that the development of new media has coincided with other ecologically devastating "developments," the works attempt to do more good than harm in "reinvent[ing] environmentalism for a digital age." Nature Version 2.0 is at the University's Clifford Art Gallery through February 16th and is curated by artists Cary Peppermint and Christine Nadir, whose EcoArtTech collaborative has brought a number of thoughtful projects to the region. In this case, an impressive handful of artists--including Natalie Jeremijenko, Brooke Singer, Joline Blais, Jane Marsching, Colin Ives, Alex Galloway, Amy Franceschini, Tom Sherman, Michael Alstad, Don Miller (aka no carrier), and Andrea Polli--merge computer science and environmental studies "by reusing and recycling obsolete technologies for new uses, and by exploring how digital spaces and the public domain may require environmental protection much like nature." On February 8th, the gallery will host a lecture by Jeremijenko and a multimedia performance by Polli, entitled "90 Degrees South." Ultimately, the show suggests that ecocriticism can be an engaging, sometimes playful, form of intervention and takes the important first step of getting people to think critically about the relationship between technology and nature. - Marisa Olson

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Landscapes in Motion

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Throughout his career, English filmmaker Patrick Keiller has explored the nuances of his country's landscape. His investigations are set apart by their interest in the way the social, economic and political forces have shaped the nation's geography. One of his most famous films, London (1994), is a documentary account of the year 1992 in England's capital, as narrated by a fictional protagonist "Robinson". Keiller captures the grit and strife of London during the early 1990s, against the turbulent backdrop of declining infrastructure, IRA bombings, and longstanding Tory rule. Keiller combines static camera shots of London streets and landmarks with a poetic voice-over to create landscapes that evoke the political situation of the time. In his new installation The City of the Future (2007), currently on view at the British Film Institute on London's Southbank, Keiller marks a new phase in his exploration of England's socio-economic geography. Based on his research project "The Future of the Landscape and the Moving Image" (2007) at the Royal College of Art, The City of the Future unfolds as a multi-channel installation composed of moving images of London's late 19th century and early 20th century urban landscape collected from "actuality films," an early genre of documentary film that loosely captures footage of events and areas. Using an interactive map, visitors to the space may select a city and play films corresponding to the location. As such, the participant is made aware not only of the differences and similarities of the city's urban geography over time, but also the ever-changing social and economic realities written on the city itself. - Caitlin Jones



Image: Patrick Keiller, The City of the Future, 2007

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Dispatches from Antarctica

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Artists and curators are increasingly using a range of technologies to document global warming's rapid transformation of the planet. Painter Joy Garnett's blog StrangeWeather.info and Shane Brennan's curated weblog New Climates both provide a clearing-house for information about art projects related to environmental issues. This past fall, non-profit organization Electronic Music Foundation's environmental sound art festival Ear to the Earth brought together artists and musicians from the world over to produce and show projects on the subject. Undeniably, the art community is acting in response to an ever-greater urgency to acknowledge and appreciate the fleeting visual and audio experiences of the natural world. For years, digital media artist Andrea Polli has centered her practice around environmental concerns with such projects as Airlight Taipei (2006) and Atmospherics/Weather Works (2004) (included in the Rhizome Artbase). During December and January, Polli traveled to Antarctica to capture the quickly disappearing beauty of the region through sound and video. The trip is a residency funded by the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, and it will allow her to work alongside the scientists from the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research Project. Polli created the blog 90degreesesouth.org to report and share her recordings and reflections. Visitors to the site can listen to Polli's field recordings of melting glaciers and icebergs, as well as take in a number of instructive audio interviews with notable climatologists and meteorologists, such as co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Dr. Andreas Fischlin, meteorologist Dr. Matt Lazzara of University of Wisconsin, Dr. Rick Aster, among many others. 90degreessouth.org provides a rare and informative artist's perspective on the day-to-day activities of scientists working in a spectacular and often strenuous environment. - Ceci Moss

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