The Debates In Depth

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Curated by artists Caspar Stracke and Gabriela Monroy, Brooklyn's video_dumbo, a festival of the electronic moving image in all its various forms, debuts its 2008 edition tonight-- right up against another event that will be filling video and computer screens worldwide, the first US presidential candidate debates. Meeting that programming challenge, Stracke and Monroy have organized Hack the Debate in 3D!. Thanks to some help from sponsors Current and Twitter, the event will include an ongoing Twitterized comments feed integrated into three-dimensional projection of the live debate -- and, as the curators remind us in their program notes, "ironically, this stereoscopic system is based on the colors RED and BLUE." The rest of video_dumbo's enticing lineup includes the premiere of in complete world by Shelly Silver and two full days of new work by an intergenerational array of media artists, including Phyllis Baldino, Mike Hoolboom, Scott Pagano, Torsten Z. Burns and Darrin Martin, eteam, John Michael Boling and Javier Morales, Nicolas Provost, Sharon Hayes, PFFR and scads more. With the recent fading-away of the New York Video Festival and other like-minded Manhattan events, video_dumbo seems to carry on the necessary tradition of the smartly-organized theatrical festival. - Ed Halter

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CBS Outdoor Pull Suzanne Opton's "Soldier" Billboards During the Republican National Convention

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The Republican National Convention is still a handful of days away, but controversy is already being courted in Minneapolis-St. Paul over CBS Outdoor's decision to cancel its contract with artist Suzanne Opton due to the politically-sensitive nature of her photographs. Working with local organization Forecast Public Art and curator Susan Reynolds, Opton aimed to display several billboards depicting active-duty American soldiers, whom she photographed at Fort Drum, New York in 2004 and 2005. Like Rineke Dijkstra's series of photographs of young soldiers serving in the French Foreign Legion and Israeli Army, Opton's works offer empathetic portraits of her subjects, at a time when American military action in Iraq and Afghanistan elicits increasing national dissent. Her striking, monumental images find their subjects stripped of body armor and military dress and leaning their heads against a table. The photographs are vertically-scaled and cropped to only show each subject's head and neck, a visual decision Opton has suggested lends vulnerability to these unarmed soldiers, but which also, in light of past Al Qaeda videos, carries a far more disturbing undertone. On the project's website -- now the most significant record of the billboards -- Opton accompanies each of the nine photographs with the length of time served, by a given subject, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a sense, because of the ambivalent mix of emotions these images conjure, Opton's choice to exhibit them in equally ambivalent public spaces seemed very appropriate. Yet that ambiguity, the artist claimed, was precisely the cause of CBS Outdoor's concern. Worry about possible misinterpretation of the images -- and the lack of explicit indication that they were artworks, as opposed to advertisements -- contributed, she said, to the organization's decision to discontinue her contract. If nothing else, Opton's proposal will serve as an ...

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Team Spoof

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In the days of DIY online publishing, what we once knew as agitprop has increasingly taken the form of parasitic media. In such projects, activists leech qualities from the web presence of the host they intend to critique and use these visual resemblances (logos, site maps, page layouts, even URLs) to mimic their opponent in parallel sites that shoot off rather rhizomatically. Like a scientific parasite, the activist lives off the host, but what really thrives is the self-referential critique enabled by this form of parody. The Italian collective, Les Liens Invisibles, excels at initiatives such as these. In their open source project, Fake is a Fake, they make it easy for internet users with access to free Word Press blogging software to mimic high profile sites like news and government agencies, while inserting their own statements. "If at one time or another in your life you wanted to speak with 'the master's voice,'" they say, "then you are ready for our brand new fake-publishing services!" Constantly updated and refined by a group of devoted developers, the list of available spoofs continues to grow. Their most recent (ironically credited to Luther Blissett, the open source nom de plume--taken from the given name of a Jamaican footballer--originated in Italy for hundreds of worldwide activists) uses the upcoming games in Beijing as a backdrop for discussing China's attitude towards human rights. In the announcement of the Peking 2008 site, they declared, "While the Olympic curtain softly falls on the Chinese repression in Tibet, the imaginary art-group Les Liens Invisibles celebrates the upcoming Olympic Games with a new fake-based hybridation between art, activism, and advertising strategies." The ubiquity and recognizability of branded messages make them particularly vulnerable to such forms of plagiarism. The artists' disclaimer for Fake is a ...

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Knitting Circles Around the War

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Cat Mazza is a practitioner of what sociologist Betsy Greer has called "craftivism." She's used knitting and other needlecraft-related processes to address pertinent political issues. Her projects are particularly adept at effecting a tactical turning of the tables on issues; for instance, using hand-made (though often computer- or software-assisted) processes to address labor conditions. Her latest project is similarly successful at fighting fire with fire (or should we say "fiber"?), parodying a US government program--even using its own explicit instructions--to critique the ideas behind it. Stitch for Senate is a contemporary take on the historic practice of charitable knitting. During WWII, women and children supported the war effort by knitting clothing and protective gear for soldiers abroad. Following the US invasion of Iraq, Americans were encouraged to make similar efforts for soldiers stationed in Iraq and Aghanistan. However, as Mazza points out in a video on her site, this war is not as popular as WWII, consequently neither is the knitting initiative. On the fourth anniversary of the invasion, in order to spur more thought and dialogue about the war, Mazza launched Stitch for Senate which encourages users to download patterns and knit helmet liners not for combat troops but for every member of the US Senate (the legislative body that votes to declare war), giving them the responsibility of distributing the fuzzy armaments. Meanwhile, the website is a space for documentation of these efforts as well as posts by users about war-related discussions and acts of charity, patriotism, and activism within radius of their own local knitting circles. A few helmet liners won't unravel the war, but as with craft groups before them, projects like these do provide a safe platform for approaching (or stabbing a needle into) bigger issues. - Marisa Olson


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Making the Most of Negative Space

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By now, many Rhizome readers are familiar with the ordeal endured by Steve Kurtz, a member of the tactical media collective Critical Art Ensemble dubiously charged with "mail fraud" (when bioterrorism allegations didn't stick) following the sudden death of his wife. More details on the case, which resonated in ripples throughout the art world and raised many important questions about free speech rights, can be found on the CAE Defense Fund website. Now CAE and their frequent collaborators, the Institute for Applied Autonomy, are teaming-up in an exhibition at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, in Kurtz's city of residence, Buffalo, NY. The show, entitled "Seized," revolves around the materials taken by the FBI in their occupation and search of Kurtz's home. The negative spaces left behind by these absent books, art works, and other seemingly innocuous objects are filled by the garbage the FBI left behind. The show will also include the works in which CAE was engaged at the time, and which came under Homeland scrutiny. These include Free Range Grain, Molecular Invasion, and GenTerra, all of which explore the systems of scientific research as models for discussing the impact of biotechnology on our food, our bodies, and ironically, our security. The exhibition will be open June 7-July 13 and, like the negative spaces filled by government garbage in the exhibited documentation, the show offers an opportunity to fill the hole punched by this unfortunate series of events with critical conversation. - Marisa Olson


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Private Lives

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Sophie Calle, Unfinished, 2005

The New Normal, an exhibition currently on display at Artists Space, assembles works from thirteen practitioners, all of which were made after 2001 and are somehow representative of the emergent conditions of public and private life in America and beyond. Curator Michael Connor borrows his exhibition title from Dick Cheney's notorious post-9/11 speech, in which the vice president characterized the forthcoming encroachments on citizens' private lives as "the new normalcy." What makes Connor's exhibition truly revelatory, however, is the way it proposes this "rise of state and corporate surveillance" to be as definitive, in the shaping of the private sphere, as the willingness of millions of members of the populous to voluntarily make their private lives public, by means of online venues for personal blogging, image and video diaries, and social networks. This trend, if anything, indicates that for the twenty-first century public, "private information is not always something to fear." To the contrary, Connor argues that the power entailed in this type of public disclosure can be harnessed in the service of new forms of cultural production and new "tactics for political critique."



Sharif Waked, Chic Point, 2003

Support for this point can be found throughout the exhibition. Bangladesh-born, U.S.-based artist Hasan Elahi's 2002 airport interrogation by FBI agents, for example, prompted his developing Tracking Transience, a personal website monitoring his spending, calls and location, with photo documentation for support. Elahi's project serves a pragmatic end - as virtual alibi - but does so in a conceptually telling fashion: requiring the artist to internalize state power and subject his life to the degree of scrutiny the government reserves for suspected terrorists. In a similar vein, Palestinian artist Sharif Waked's single-channel video Chic Point (2003) shows a parade of men ...

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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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Before the Bonus Round

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The Olympics are not simply a matter of fun and games. They are a multi-national media spectacle that--as we've seen in recent protests--can arouse and galvanize political action. The event's organizers pitch it as a zone outside of politics, but of course issues of national identity, human rights, autonomy, economic might, and foreign policy all coalesce around the Olympics. While much of the current attention to these matters is directed at Beijing, groups in Montreal and London are already forming to address the impact that the arrival of the famous torch (ceremoniously relayed in a model invented by the Nazis to promote a strong image of the Third Reich around the 1936 Berlin games) will have upon local communities. The London art space, E:vent, is among the first to chime-in with an exhibition addressing these issues. Their show, "Sound Proof" (open April 19-May 11), features six artists "using sound materials, drawings, and annotations [to create] audio and visual maps that preserve observations of transformation." These site-specific works focus on the Lower Lea Valley, below London, which will be virtually reinvented for London 2012. In a way, they will function as aural time capsules--records or "proof" of a space and culture if not doomed for demolition, then certainly slated for overhaul. The valuable question raised by the show is that of preservation--what is deemed worthy of saving (memories, relics, cultural practices) and what is the responsible, effective way to do so. This form of ethnographic programming takes "game art" to another level. - Marisa Olson

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The New Transparent

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At least in principle, there seems to have been a wide embrace of the open source movement. The argument that things should be left open to improvement, and even personalization, by those with the know-how appeals to many of us. But where did the broader drive for "openness" come from? And what are its implications beyond technology? The "Disclosures" exhibition on view at London's Gasworks through May 18th looks at manifestations of open source methods in offline areas of cultural production. Curators Anna Colin and Mia Jankowicz describe these as "situations in which the viewer, reader, listener or internet user becomes emancipated through egalitarian participation, collaborative authorship, and/or the breaking down of hierarchical and social boundaries." Emancipation is, of course, a strong word, but it refers here to the freedom to participate in the social, economic, and production processes that inform our social reality. This is a utopia "Disclosures" both holds-up and critiques through the inclusion of work by artists and tactical media practitioners as well as cultural theorists and music producers. Projects include Declose, by Open Music Archive, a vinyl remix tool compositing copyright-expired breaks and samples from early jazz, blues, and folk recordings with new "copyleft beats" by invited musicians; John Barlow Gone Offshore, the newest chapter of Goldin+Senneby's effort to explore "the projects and mythologies of the invisible" in which fictional character John Barlow blogs his investigations into an offshore company known as Headless Limited; and Tsila Hassine and De Geuzen's web-based Image Tracer, a beautifully layered snapshot of the appearance, disappearance, and ranking of Google Image Search results that grows out of the collaborators' interest in "media images and the way their significance and presence fluctuates in the ecology of the world wide web." Not surprisingly, given its open source inspiration ...

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Access in Excess

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Standing out at this year's Whitney Biennial are Neighborhood Public Radio (a.k.a. NPR). Founded in 2004, in Oakland, California by artists Jon Brumit, Lee Montgomery, and Michael Trigilio, the group share both an acronym and a logo with National Public Radio, but their focus is on local communities and DIY broadcasts. The group takes the act of transmission into their own hands, but are quick to point out that they are not "pirate radio," as they don't steal a spot on your dial, they simply hop onto an empty airwave. Their intentionally unlicensed practice is a touchstone for discussion of corporation-controlled spaces, like the air around us, and the programmed homogenization of the radio. What NPR delivers to listeners is a low-budget (but relatively high production value) snapshot of the neighborhoods in which they are stationed. The group has traveled the world, one neighborhood at a time, engaging in dialogue with local inhabitants about pressing local issues, in addition to presenting artist's recordings, audio experiments, and performances. At the Biennial they are broadcasting in the museum, and on the air, from their temporary headquarters in an empty shoe store, a few doors down from the museum. Along with co-hosts Linda Arnejo, Whiz Biddlecombe, and Katina Papson, the founders will welcome a number of visiting artists to the program and invite locals to come in and chat about issues of importance to them. They will also receive and re-transmit broadcasts from other neighborhoods, who are participating in the program from afar and offering a point of contrast with New York's Upper East Side. NPR is influenced by the history of community radio broadcasts, as well as collective action groups and situationist collaboratives, but their focus is squarely on the present and the opportunities afforded by ...

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