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Florence Hercule at NMNM

This review of “Florence Hercule. Le nouveau Robinson” at NMNM Villa Paloma appeared in the May 2017 issue of Flash Art International:

 Hercule Florence, Sem titulo (canoa de Guatòs, ao por-do-sol), ca. 1835, watercolor and China ink on paper, 32 x 43,5 cm - Collection C. H. Florence -  Leila et Silvia FlorenceHercule Florence, Sem titulo (canoa de Guatòs, ao por-do-sol), ca. 1835, watercolor and China ink on paper, 32 x 43,5 cm – Collection C. H. Florence – Leila et Silvia Florence

Meticulously researched and documented, this captivating show co-curated by artist Linda Fregni Nagler and NMNM’s Cristiano Raimondi brings together a vast array of drawings, watercolours, prints, letters and manuscripts that shed light on the remarkable achievements of the nineteenth-century draughtsman, printer and inventor Hercule Florence (1804-79). Born in Nice but raised in Monaco, this self-styled “new Robinson” is little known outside of Brazil, where he settled and worked for much of his adult life, after taking part in the ill-fated Langsdorff expedition (1825-29) into the Amazon that cost the German leader Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff his sanity and the French painter Aimé-Adrien Taunay his life.

Florence’s studies of the Amazonian landscapes, its flora and fauna, as well as indigenous tribes and their customs hold pride of place in the show alongside the finely illustrated diaries he kept during the expedition. Yet this forgotten figure from Brazil’s colonial past deserves our attention today for his subsequent discoveries: innovative proposals for a system of musical notation of bird song and animal cries; a sixth architectural order, the Palmian; and more or less successful experiments with different printing techniques, including “photographie” (a term he coined in 1833 for a technique of printing with light) – a few years before Daguerre was credited with the invention of the photographic medium.

Commissioned works by five international artists, three of whom live in Brazil, provide a welcome contemporary twist to an exhibition which might otherwise flag owing to the sheer weight of archival materials. Formally varied in approach, they pick up on different aspects of Florence’s oeuvre, whose ongoing preoccupation with copying and recording informs Fregni Nagler’s own artistic contribution. Lucia Koch’s translucent silk curtains printed with subtle colour gradients drawn from Florence’s enchanting watercolour series of cloud-strewn skies are one of the exhibition’s highlights.

Oceans: The Forgotten Habitat

This interview-based piece appeared in Chinese translation in the Conference Room section of LEAP magazine (April issue):

Hosted by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), The Current Convening #2 took place in Fort Kochi, Kerala on 13-15 December, 2016, coinciding with the opening of the third Kochi-Muziris Biennale which was dedicated to, among other, water and hidden rivers. Set up by TBA21 founder Francesca von Habsburg together with artistic director Markus Reymann, The Current is a three-year exploratory fellowship program dedicated to research on the oceanand specifically the Pacific Ocean and its archipelagoes. In addition to The Current fellows and expedition leaders Ute Meta Bauer and Cesar Garcia, who took part in recent expeditions to French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea aboard the Dardanella, TBA21’s own research vessel, this Convening brought together participants from the fields of art, ecology, law and policy-making to examine what the arts can effectively contribute to the debate concerning such pressing ecological concerns as climate change and deep-sea mining. The following text is excerpted from the three “structured conversations” or round-table discussions that engaged with the ocean as a mythical space, a complex ecosystem as well as a legal entity.

1. Unpredictable Oceans and the Monstrosity of the Sea

UTE META BAUER The ocean today is less explored than outer space. The three “structured conversations” address the urgency to protect the oceans as an irreplaceable resource for all forms of life and as habitat for tens of thousands of known and even a larger number of unknown species. Humankind has long seen the ocean as an unknown, monstrous and imaginary space. Such a view has been shaped by our limited experience of the oceans and is fed by mythological and cultural narratives that have been passed down from generation to generation. As the planet is confronted by unprecedented challenges in the age of the Anthropocene, including climate change, the rise of the sea levels, pollution of all sorts, overfishing and most recently seabed mining, it’s more important than ever to reexamine our relationship to the sea, to respect its manifold and complex ecosystem, to imagine new possibilities for coexistence. Admitting how little we know might also change our personal and collective attitude towards this large and powerful entitythe ocean.

DANIELA ZYMAN If the oceans are the last frontier, what does it mean in terms of the monstrous? Is it no longer the Leviathanthe mythical or biblical figure of the animal creature? Is the monstrous a figure that has more to do with global economies and the consequences to the oceans and the environment developed out of outrageous extraction strategies? One other picture of monstrosity: the Mediterranean that has lately become a graveyard of vessels and boats and people trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of accessing different forms of life. This has brought up again the need for us to intervene in those spaces with a regulatory system, trying to reconnect and create on a humanitarian but also a regulatory and ecological level new forms of legal bodies and entities that would allow this forgotten space to be redrawn and given a sovereignty that it has never had.

2. Ocean as Habitat: The rights of nature and the international law of the sea

T J DEMOS My provocation will be to try to get you to reconsider the term climate refugee” and what that means. What happens when the ocean becomes a kind of “sacrifice zone,” a term that environmentalists use for when areas of oceans or land become dedicated to forms of extraction that basically give up any hope of saving or preserving an ecosystem’s integrity? We’re living through the sixth mass species extinction; we’re entering into a period of a mass refugee crisis where we’re running out of refuges.The humanitarian desire is to produce the category of “climate refugee.” It’s an incredibly problematic category. Climate refugee is not even recognized within international law. A lot of people, including in the Maldives, would resist this category because it tends to produce a victimizing objecthood. In certain ways it’s a fatalistic discourse that gives in to the end result of rising seas and submersion and the loss of territories. A term we could think of in relation to this: wishful sinking.

MARKUS REYMANN The ocean offers a habitat for 90 per cent of the species. So far we’ve mainly talked about one, which is human. If we’re talking about reconsidering the rights of nature and the concept of common heritage of mankind, or humankind, then we need to consider organisms other than the big charismatic ones, the dolphins and the whales that have pushed legislation forward but only because we can create empathy for them. But what happens to all these organisms down there at the bottom of the sea that have the sedimentation of one millimetre per square meter per year? […] The organisms down below are not to be mined; if anything, they’re to be farmed.

D. GRAHAM BURNETT The future of the protection of the ocean lies in the codification of rights in nonhuman creatures, from the microorganisms that are capable of metabolizing complex minerals right up the food chain to the charismatic megafauna that we can create a cognitive or an emotional relationship to. You’re not going to get people to take seriously the need for a legislation unless you can make them care. This was what did happen when people mobilized to save the whales and get an international moratorium on commercial whaling; that happened because a bunch of visionary folks, Greenpeace and others, began transforming how people thought about those animals. Here’s the link between saving the ocean, law and the kind of work that many of us as artists and creative people or scholars or writers do: it’s to say minds have to be changed and they need to be changed by making the kinds of ideas that are real, true and important dynamic, vital, unforgettableto make them stick in our heads. That’s how it happens.

3. Ocean as Treasure Trove: Deep-sea mining–the next gold rush?

STEFANIE HESSLER Everybody who has a smartphone or a computer should care about deep-sea mining because it involves the extraction of minerals and rare earths from the seabed that are being used in consumer electronics, in batteries etc. We’ll most likely hear this term in the future because the extraction activity is about to become a reality. The conversation about deep-sea mining began in the 1960s with a publication by J. L. Mero entitled The Mineral Resources of the Sea. That book suggested there was a near limitless supply of what were called “potato-sized” nodulesmetals that were found in the sediment of the sea floor. The early attempts to make deep-sea mining a reality failed as a result of the collapse of world metal prices; however, in the past decade, with the soaring metal prices, especially for gold and copper, deep-sea mining is on the table again. […] The nodules that are being extracted are not dead matter but actually living beings so speaking about the rights of nature and rights of other than human organisms is also important for this conversation.

AMAR KANWAR We need to understand what it is that we’re going to lose and, unless we do that, we will not comprehend the meaning of the crime. In a certain way we’re talking about a crime to be. And how do you respond to a crime that is about to take place? If you look at extraction, any kind of extraction, and if you look at the evolution of the law, you can see that it has a very close relationship with the whole process of extraction, wherever you go. The law gets conceived for extraction. Before a crime takes place, it is conceived; after you conceive it, you plan to execute it. You can see the evolution of the law is the crime already. So when you’re looking at evidence–what would be evidence of massive destruction on the bottom of the sea when you can’t access it or see it?–I would say that the crime has begun.

NABIL AHMED I’m from Dhaka and we have a very long maritime border with India. In fact, the very first maritime dispute boundary that was presented and debated in the international tribunals for the law of the sea was the maritime boundary dispute between Bangladesh and India. I would add that the seabed is also a spatial condition. The geospatial and the marine sensing that are used for those exploration purposes could be turned to monitor these and to set up a counter-forensics. Perhaps there is a way that these technologies could be shared to open them up to artistic practices that could use our kind of sensitivity, our background and experience to track what might happen. For example, I work around a landmine in West Papua. It is not a technical exercise; in fact, the work is there to support the self-determination of the West Papuan people. This kind of forensics must work with the people to whom these seas belong and not only to the state.

MARKUS REYMANN This is my question to everybody: how do we bring the dimension in which we operate to the table, persistently, in technical terms like the comments [TBA21 put] to the Mining Code at the International Seabed Authority or any other kind of authority. Becoming an observer to this United Nations’ body is for us–as a cultural agency, an arts organisation–an opportunity to insert a different language, a different thought and mode of operating. We saw it at the ISA, as soon as we start speaking their language we lose. It’s not going to change anything immediately but you have to be there, and you have to be persistent. It’s one drop, and another drop, and another. We’re there for life. But the beauty of this is that the crime hasn’t been committed.

Miroslaw Balka

This review of Miroslaw Balka’s “CROSSOVER/S” at HangarBicocca in Milan is featured in issue 57 of Mousse magazine:

The end is in the beginning and yet you go on,” says Samuel Beckett. Placed at the outset and the close of Miroslaw Balka’s retrospective at HangarBicocca, spanning the last three decades of the Polish artist’s career, two yellow lines – one horizontal, one vertical – frame the exhibition and, taken together, beautifully illustrate the titular “CROSSOVER/S”. Both are fragile and unstable objects. To see the first, a video piece featuring a rectangular yellow bar shifting ever so slightly against a black background, the visitors have to look back or retrace their footsteps, suspended as it is high up, out of harm’s way, above the main exhibition room’s curtained threshold. (This casts the work’s title, Holding the Horizon (2016), in an ironic light.) Equally elusive, the tenuous and barely visible thread of Yellow Nerve (2012-15), spotlit at night and catching the sun rays at certain hours of the day, occupies the full height of the contiguous Cube room. It has the empty industrial space all to itself, barring the audience members whose breath and movements occasionally cause it to stir.

As they make or rather feel their way through an exhibition designed to stimulate all our senses, the visitors individually and collectively give it body. Except in one instance – the blurry portrait of a concentration camp guard interviewed by Claude Lanzmann for his 1925 documentary film Shoah in Balka’s three-second-long looped video work Primitive (2008) – the body as such is conspicuous by its absence. And yet its diffuse presence haunts the show, starting with the heavy velvet curtain visitors must negotiate on entering the exhibition space, which has been heated to reach the average temperature of the human body. Titles of other works, such as 15 x 22 x 19 (hard skull) (2006) and Yellow Nerve (2012-2015), read like anatomical studies or else memento mori. According to his usual practice, the artist’s own body – and notably its height – has been used as a measure for the scaled-down version of the original zoo built for the SS officers and their families at the Treblinka extermination camp, the bare bones of which have been faithfully reproduced in 250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41 / Zoo / T (2007/2008).

If man is the measure of all things, then some of the artworks on view are bound to confound our expectations. Take, for instance, the colossal Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen (2011), as if designed to dwarf the visitor. Styling itself as an “anti-fountain”, the bulky metallic structure continually discharges a murky black liquid in lieu of the accustomed clear water; unlike your typical fountain, which tends to stand in the middle of a public square, it has been relegated to a corner. The centre of the main exhibition space – fittingly called Navate, “the naves” – is occupied instead by another sizeable installation made of steel and titled Cruzamento (2007), in keeping with the Christian symbolism that pervades the show. Made up of intersecting cage-like corridors, fitted with five strategically positioned ventilators that make your hair stand on end as you walk through, this is one of several such passageways and conduits made to channel the visitors’ bodies or draw them inside like a trap. Whereas 200 x 760 x 500 / The Right Path (2008/2015) – whose L-shaped layout mirrors that of the Navate as a whole – leads to a dead end, the light bulb dangling from the ceiling of a wooden cubicle in 196 x 230 x 141 (2007) switches off, disconcertingly, the minute one crosses its bounds.

A number of the installation pieces brought together under one roof at HangarBicocca rely on the visitors to activate them by walking through, into or on top of them; others still seem to act of their own accord. This applies to works of the noise-generating variety especially, above all the outsized heavy wooden platform of 400 x 250 x 30 (2005), calling for a delicate balancing act on the visitors’ part akin to finding a sweet spot, and the wily To Be (2014), a motorized steel wire whose writhing motions produce a loud lashing sound, occasionally accompanied by the hollow thud of the falling platform displayed nearby.

Overlaps such as these are reflected in the show’s capacious title. CROSSOVER/S invites its audience to tease out the connecting threads between the unsettling objects gathered in this rich, densely allusive exhibition, in which differences of scale, verticality and horizontality, light and darkness, purity and dirt, heat and cold are subtly contrasted and played off against each another. Ultimately, the artworks assembled at HangarBicocca all seem to point in one direction: mortality as the true leveller and our common horizon, one which we struggle to grasp.

The Green Ray

This essay appeared in the November online issue of The White Review:

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

AURORA CHASING IS A FAVOURITE SPORT UP IN ICELAND, one of the main draws for visitors. Northern Lights come in all sorts of hues, apparently, but more often than not they are a glowing green – the colour of the equally elusive meteorological phenomenon that gives its title to a lesser-known Jules Verne novel and to Eric Rohmer´s 1986 film Le rayon vert. The dreamy final sequence of the latter, as I recall, dilates the moment when the green flash briefly appears just as the sun sinks below the horizon, contemplated from afar by the mesmerised heroine Delphine and her newfound love, Jacques. Earlier on in the film, the troubled protagonist portrayed by Marie Larivière overhears a conversation at the beach in which Verne´s Le rayon vert is discussed. Whoever sees the fleeting green ray, the story goes, gains an insight into their own and other people´s thoughts and feelings. A clarity of vision.

A week into my month-long retreat in the solitude of Roni Horn‘s VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER, overlooking the harbour in the fishing village of Stykkishólmur and the many islands of Breiðafjörður Bay, I sighted a green ray from the writer´s studio located beneath the library. Minutes before I was up in the library, surrounded by the clear glacier-filled glass columns that have replaced its original holdings. The wind-swept sky that evening had the same pellucid quality. For once no clouds were obstructing the horizon line at sunset; this in itself felt like a rare occurrence, one that should not go unheeded. I was in the midst of preparing supper when the sun started dipping into the sea. These rival claims on my attention kept me rushing back and forth across the room, from the kitchen area to the windows looking out to the West Fjords. The sun´s disk was all but engulfed. Eager to resume my cooking activities, I nearly turned my back on the green ray. Yet before I could pull myself away there it was in a flash, eerily, unmistakenly green. And then, just as suddenly, it went out.

Thanks to Rohmer´s film, which a friend had urged me to see some years ago, I knew instantly what it was. The excitement of seeing the green ray for the first time soon gave way to a vague sense of melancholy, brought on no doubt by the dying of the light that this horizontal band of lurid green hemmed in by whiteness seemed to underscore. And then, unlike Rohmer´s heroine, who has found her match by the time she comes to view the green ray, clasped in her lover´s embrace, I had it all to myself.

To capture the elusive ray on 16 mm film Rohmer and his crew went all the way to the Canary Islands. Stacking the odds in their favour, I suppose. That I should spot it from another volcanic island on the edges of Europe seemed fitting. Iceland with its extreme and unpredictable weather, completely at odds with the Canaries in this respect, made witnessing what is an uncommon sight at the best of times feel that much more precious.

The day when the sighting occurred coincided with my first foray into the wilds of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, named after the snow-capped stratovolcano at its tip. I got up bright and early to catch the school bus bound for Grundarfjörður, departing from in front of the public swimming pool at 7.45 a.m. It was a glorious morning. From the rocky expanse atop which VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER stands, offering sweeping views of the sea and the surrounding mountains, I could see at a glance all the nearby peaks, usually partly obscured by low-hanging clouds.

The two women sitting across the isle from me, one of whom turned out to be the headmistress, gazed out of the window, quietly taking in the breathtaking scenery unfolding before us along the bus journey. It struck me that perhaps they had grown used to it and were seeing the familiar landscape afresh, through a stranger´s eyes. ‘And you do this every day!’ I ventured at last. ‘But we never forget its beauty,’ they assured me, as if reading my thoughts.

On that occasion I only made it as far as Grundarfjöður, the bus‘s final destination. The small fishing town, as one of the women explained to me, lies exactly in the middle of the peninsula; that‘s why the high school catering to all the teens on Snæfellsnes is located there. Grundarfjörður has its own magic mountain, Kirkjufell, possibly Iceland´s shapeliest and certainly among the most photographed. Yet the farther down the peninsula one travels, the more keenly Snæfell makes its presence felt. One of the 24 glaciers whose melted substance is preserved at Stykkishólmur´s VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER, Snæfell is the point of access to the underground realm that Verne‘s heroes stake out in the Journey to the Centre of the Earth. There is no getting away from Verne´s novel in this part of the world; reading it, I confess, is also what initially drew me here.

By mid-afternoon, the wind had picked up and the clouds started gathering, so that a clear sky at sundown was by no means a given. The green ray, when it did happen, took me by surprise. It came to me unbidden and unlooked for, as if to make up for the patent absence of the aurora borealis that I had been hoping to catch all week. The first (and only) time I ever saw the Northern Lights, they too caught me unawares. It was up in Scotland, coincidentally where Verne´s Le Rayon Vert is set. My partner James and I were driving back from St Andrews to our home in the fishing village of Crail. A green veil of light on one side of the road stopped us in our tracks. Neither one of us could tell then and there what it was. We pulled up into a country lane and watched it billowing against the night sky from across a barren field. It was nowhere near as spectacular as aurora displays can get – in the right place and at the right time – yet it has given me a taste for things that shade of green.

Rehearsals for an Island

A version of this article appeared in issue 114 of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art:

Aural Lighthouses festival, Santozeum, Thira, Santorini, May 18–23, 2015; and The violent No! of the sun burns the forehead of hills. Sand fleas arrive from salt lake and most of the theatres close, staged as part of the 14th Istanbul Biennial Public Program, various venues on the island Kastellorizo, Greece, September 7–13, 2015.

Two Greek islands – Santorini and Kastellorizo – located respectively in the Cycladic and the Dodecanese archipelagos of the southern Aegean Sea, each became the stage for shared activities, workshops, performances, installations, and lectures spanning a week in May and September 2015. The burning sun at the start and the end of a long, turbulent summer did little to dispel the atmosphere of impending doom and anxiety, which colored both events, for all their idyllic setting. From the sovereign debt crisis to the refugee crisis, Greece had become a byword for economic, social and political upheaval. Aptly reflected in the title of the Kastellorizo program, drawn from a poem by Frank O’Hara, violence was in the air.

These two unrelated events had several things in common, apart from their island location. Each came under the umbrella of a bigger art event: in the case of Aural Lighthouses, the year-long PSI (Performance Studies International) Fluid States – Performances of Unknowing festival and, in that of The violent No!…, the Public Program of the 14th Istanbul Biennial with its overarching theme of “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms.” The satellite programs on Santorini and Kastellorizo were organized by private non-profit art institutions, both coincidentally founded in 2010: the London-based Fiorucci Art Trust, which runs workshops, residencies and artist-led festivals often staged on remote islands (such as Stromboli, for the annual Volcano Extravaganza), and Santozeum, a private museum and exhibition space in Thira, Santorini, which has its own residency program for visiting artists and scholars, who are housed in a modernist 1950s villa overlooking the volcanic caldera.

In both instances, the week-long program of activities brought together local and international artists, curators, writers, arts patrons and academics. They had been invited to respond to the chosen themes – disaster sounds for the Aural Lighthouses festival and “saltwater” in Kastellorizo – but also to the island settings, their layered history, myths, archaeological vestiges, geological features and natural wonders like the Blue Grotto on Kastellorizo and Nea Kameni, the central volcanic islet in the midst of the Santorini caldera. Participants went on boat trips to explore the barren, lava-covered shores of Nea Kameni or to harvest salt at the island of Rho, close to Kastellorizo, and on field trips to archaeological sites such as Akrotiri, famed for its wall paintings, reproductions of which are temporarily exhibited at Santozeum, or Paleokastro, Kastellorizo’s ancient acropolis. Spread over a week, the programs unfolded in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere, leaving plenty of free time for individual forays, location scouting, field recordings, filming or photographing, and testing out ideas. The resulting artworks, performative lectures and interventions were open to the local community and other visitors, free of charge.

The two events differed mainly in their focus. True to its name, Aural Lighthouses as imagined by Santozeum’s founder and director Ileana Drinovan privileged listening, audio projects and sound installations, which progressively filled different rooms at the Santozeum museum, one of which had been turned into a radio broadcast station – an aural beacon of sorts. In contrast, the multi-media works that made up The violent No!… curated by Fiorucci Art Trust’s artistic director Milovan Farronato appealed to all the senses, not just hearing, and were presented at various, more or less spectacular indoor and outdoor locations on Kastellorizo.

CATASTROPHIC SOUNDSCAPES: SANTORINI

The Aural Lighthouses festival on Santorini had a distinctly more academic flavor than its Kastellorizo counterpart, reflecting Drinovan’s background as a researcher. The festival was at once a symposium, an expanding exhibition of sound sculptures and installations, and a platform for live art and experimental music. These different strands were connected through the theme of catastrophe and disaster sounds, loosely inspired by Bernie Krause’s pioneering work in the field of acoustic ecology and the concept of “biophony” that he coined. Soundscape ecology, as he conceives of it, consists of three interrelated components: geophony (non-biological natural sound, such as that of the wind, the waves, earth’s movement); biophony (the collective sound that non-human animals produce in a given environment); and anthrophony (human-generated noise). The sound installations, compositions and performances presented alongside the symposium talks, which often had a performative or aural dimension to them, tended to lean towards one of these – admittedly interconnected – phonic modes.

Animal sounds embedded within a wider, and often threatening, sonic environment cropped up in a number of the works, notably in Alyssa Moxley and Ramona Stout’s Still Here (II) (2015). Both artists were living in Santorini at the time, where they co-founded the Kinisi festival of sound. This collaborative project, in its second iteration, attempted to convey by means of radio transmitters placed in locally found salvaged cages how alarming the island’s soundscape might appear to a captive bird, sensing magnetic fields that its owners would not be able to detect. The birdcages themselves were installed all around an enclosed, cell-like space, physically impressing the bird’s entrapment upon the visitors.

The numbing hum of a swarm of bees emanating from three plain brown paper bags displayed on a plinth, in German sound sculptor Timo Kahlen’s Bags of Bees (2009), was equally unnerving. Kahlen’s piece alluded to an incident, related to him by Indian author Suzanna Arundhati Roy, where Indian workers fought armed police forces by hurling bags of swarming bees at them. Four additional sound works by the Berlin-based Kahlen were broadcast at Radio Free Santorini as part of Aural Lighthouses. Catastrophe and the song of the goat, whose ritual sacrifice is linked to the birth of tragedy, were the subject of a talk and a deep listening session led by queer theorist Marco Pustianaz, based on selected excerpts from the Cryonic Chants project and other collaborative audio works by Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Chiara Guidi and ambient sound artist Scott Gibbons, all featuring live animals. Part of the Tragedia Endogonidia serieos s, produced between 2002 and 2004, the Cryonic Chants famously vocalized discrete letters and phonemes chosen by a she-goat, which were woven into an electro-acoustic composition.

What Krause thinks of as “geophony” was embodied by several other sound pieces, including Rock II (2015) by Petros Babasikas and Chrissoula Voulgari of the Drifting City Athens design collective, working with instrument maker Sébastien Seixas. This “sentient sculptural assembly” was made up of three concrete blocks, whose porous surface and dark ashen color recalled the volcanic lava and pumice stone found on Nea Kameni. Wresting on makeshift wooden crates, each sculpture was fitted with resonators meant to respond to human presence. (The piece did not work properly when I saw it installed at a nearby brewery.) Another instance of geophony, Alyssa Moxley’s half-hour performance on the Santozeum rooftop was titled The Voice of the Sea (2015) with reference to infrasonic waves generated in marine storms. In it, she played the guitar through an effects pedal and used exciters attached to shallow metal pans filled with water to create fluctuations on the water’s surface. The green-tinged image of the round metal pans projected onto a screen in front of the performer likewise suggested the sea.

Riffing on Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environments (1965), splotches of black and ultramarine watercolors, meant to conjure volcanic lava and the sea respectively, were applied to slides in experimental filmmaker Julian Hand’s live light projections. These formed an added visual layer in the interactive laboratory opening up to visitors a confined space in which, the previous day, Gabriella Daris danced for three hours in a long-durational performance titled Dancing Tubes Interventions (2014/2015). First performed for camera at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge as part of a Metzger retrospective, the piece saw the slender dancer clad in a white leotard respond to the movements of twin plastic tubes suspended from the ceiling and animated by an air compressor in Metzger’s kinetic sculpture Dancing Tubes (1968/2014). Air also featured in Jordan Lacey’s four-channel immersive sound installation (Sonic discourse on the concept of) Rupture (2015) set up in a dedicated room of the Santozeum amid reproductions of the Akrotiri wall paintings. Their looming presence endowed with a hieratic aura the humble, man-made sounds emanating from ventilation shafts and exhaust fans Lacey had recorded to evoke the “raw energy of anthropogenic noise.”

Conceived as a “library of siren candidates” for future emergencies, Curtis Tamm’s spatialized sound performance Tympanic Tether (2015) mixed animal (birds, bats, herding goats), inanimate (crumbling rocks, shorelines, wind in the telephone lines) and man-made alarm sounds (ambulance, fire truck and police sirens) to beguiling effect. The hour-long piece was composed entirely of field recordings taken around Santorini in the course of a month-long residency at the Santozeum, during which Tamm explored the island together with fellow artist and anthropologist Hermione Spriggs. Their impressions of the place and Tamm’s proposal for an aural warning system were summed up in an evocative text written by Spriggs, read out in turn by participants in the Aural Lighthouses event as part of the performance. Appropriately for a festival devoted to the sense of hearing, the text was accompanied by a map of the island, tilted round so as to draw out the ear-shaped form of the volcanic caldera.

REHEARSALS FOR AN ISLAND: KASTELLORIZO

Staged on the remote Dodecanese island of Kastellorizo, huddling the Turkish coast but far removed from the epicenter of the Istanbul Biennial and Greek to boot, “The violent No! of the sun burns the forehead of hills. Sand fleas arrive from salt lake and most of the theatres close” owed its somewhat unwieldy title to a stanza from poet and art critic Frank O’Hara’s Ann Arbor Variations. The poem was read out one evening by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to a small gathering of artists and guests of the Fiorucci Art Trust, whom the curator of the 14th Istanbul Biennial had “drafted in” to contribute to the public program with a series of interventions, readings and activities responding to the genius loci and the biennial theme of “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms.”

Fittingly, the weeklong course of action conceived by Fiorucci Art Trust’s Milovan Farronato began with a boat trip to harvest salt, which can be found in abundance on the neighboring island of Rho. The hand-picked salt brought back from Rho was used the following evening to season fried whitebait, a traditional Greek dish that Athens-based artist Dora Economou prepared and served at the open-air fish market. The symbolic fish fare, of which everyone could partake, attracted local people and visitors alike, including the Syrian refugees awaiting boats bound for Rhodes and Athens on the island. During the meal, Economou read from a personal travelogue mixing memories of places visited over the course of twenty years with enigmatic prophesies and recurrent images of erupting volcanoes. A visit to the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii prompts the narrator to liken a circle of beautiful and still women depicted in a wall painting to “Lot’s Wives turning into tears of salt;” she herself later weeps “rivers of salt.”

Salt was also present in Brazilian artist Lucia Koch’s synaesthetic intervention at the dilapidated Old Hammam, currently undergoing restoration work led by conservator and PhD candidate Fotini Chalvantzi, who specializes in the history of Kastellorizo. Revisiting Turkish Delight (2003) – a site-specific installation she first made on the occasion of the 8th Istanbul Biennial at the Cağaloğlu Hamamı – Koch glued glass bowls lined with colored filters ordinarily used for filming onto the perforated dome, imbuing the inside of the diminutive square structure with a soft golden light. Visitors were encouraged to rub their skin with salt and rosemary in a cleansing ritual designed to reactivate the disused space ahead of its eventual reopening. As luck would have it, on the day set for Koch’s interactive piece open to all comers, the island’s water supplies were temporarily cut off, making it well nigh impossible to steam up the tiny space in such a way as to not only reveal but show the colored light shafts to best advantage.

The nine participating artists availed themselves of public spaces and scenic spots across the island. They were spoiled for choice. Irena Haiduk’s new film Seductive Exacting Realism (SER), snippets of which were screened as a teaser on the final evening, was shot at one of the secluded Plaka beaches reached by boat from the main harbour. SER’s trailer shows alluring images of four bronzed young women sporting black bathing suits – Haiduk’s idea of “sirens” – lounging on the sun-baked striated rock surface polished by the waves, in contrast to the rugged red cliffs behind. Few locations could possibly rival the Blue Grotto, one of the island’s natural wonders, which Koch set out to capture on film. This sea cave is accessed through a shallow opening letting enough light in to give a measure of its vastness without dissolving its mystery. The grotto and its swimmers reflecting the water’s electric blue color, made more intense by the engulfing darkness, put the Brazilian artist in mind of the Gruta Azul strip club in her hometown of Porto Allegre.

In a morning’s worth of location scouting, artist and filmmaker Gabriel Lester lighted on a vacant site overgrown with thistles and strewn with rubble, metal scraps, and a discarded TV monitor, from which he drew the substance of his whimsical performance Seeker (2015). Looking the part of a prospector in his panama hat and matching white top and shorts bearing a question mark pattern, Lester regaled the audience seated in this open air theatre with stories of how, as a child, he would bury objects in the ground in a bid to communicate with the future. He went on to present individual audience members with “artworks” in the shape of rusty nails, bottle caps, forks, bits and bobs retrieved from the earth with the aid of an assistant wielding a metal detector to the post-apocalyptic sounds of Bebe and Louis Barron’s pioneering electronic music played on a laptop.

Used as a natural backdrop in several pieces, including Lester’s performance, the island of Kastellorizo appeared as a character in its own right in Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s beguiling shadow play Rehearsal for an island (2015) inspired by Turkish puppet theatre. In lieu of the traditional lead character Karagöz or his Greek counterpart Karagiozis, Çavuşoğlu’s shadow play featured modular cardboard renderings of Kastellorizo and of a boat trying to reach the island – a scenario that took on an added poignancy in the light of the Syrian refugee crisis gripping this tiny outpost of Greece, situated a mere mile off the Turkish coast. The artist called on the participants in the program to take turns animating the cardboard pieces casting shadows on both sides of a white screen set up in the middle of a public square and to generate the rousing sounds accompanying the shadow play.

Cairo-born Anna Boghiguian, who spoke in Arabic to some of the refugees sleeping rough in and around the harbor as they awaited the next ferry headed for mainland Greece, addressed their plight directly in her spoken reflections on the subject of swimming. This segued into a workshop in which the artist invited those present to draw a representation of Kastellorizo reflecting their feelings about the place on the last day of “The violent No!…” which coincided with the annual celebrations to mark the island’s independence from Italy in 1947, on 13 September. The festivities on the day began with the usual military band parade converging on the harbor in mid-morning and ended with a procession livened up by Lubaina Himid’s colorful, vaguely Cubistic masks and headpieces donned by some of the participants in the program, followed by a public feast bringing the week’s shared activities to a close.

Raphael Hefti: Project 1049

This feature appeared in Dutch translation in the October issue of Metropolis M:

The streets of Gstaad might as well be paved with gold. The main promenade of the exclusive alpine ski resort, which plays host to the international jet set, is lined with designer boutiques and luxury hotels. For a period of three weeks this summer, Swiss artist Raphael Hefti had the pavements of Gstaad and the neighboring Saanen village spray-painted with pulverized Swarovski ‘diamonds’ – to dazzling and quite uncanny effect.

Unveiled on the final weekend of July, this somewhat elusive work was presented as part of the artist-run Project 1049, which Hefti himself initiated, working with a close-knit group of friends and collaborators whom he got to know while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. During the day, if one stood over the painted stretch of street with one’s back to the sun, an iridescent halo would miraculously appear around one’s shadow, yet only at a certain angle and in direct sunlight. At night, one could still experience the work by torchlight, say, but then a more diffuse prismatic light would envelop one’s hands and whole body, in lieu of the starker two-dimensional rainbow effect centred on the viewer’s head and shoulders in the daytime version.

‘You either see it, or you don’t,’ as Hefti says. ‘I didn’t want anything indicating that it’s an artwork.’ In the absence of any kind of label drawing attention to it, the work could go unnoticed. At a glance, the spray-painted surface looked no different to the rest of the road. So much so that the mother of Gstaad-born curator Olympia Scarry, having stumbled upon the piece in town, thought she had better alert her eye doctor, who had warned her of possible side effects following an operation. ‘I was afraid something was not right with my vision,’ she told Hefti, after repeatedly seeing rainbow reflections when walking around Gstaad.

Hefti relates the anecdote to me in a local bakery over coffee and bread rolls with tiny red-and-white flags sticking out of them, made especially for the Swiss National Day on 1 August. Swiss people are inordinately proud of their streets and how clean they are; nowhere more so than in Gstaad. Getting permission to apply anything to them was no mean feat despite it being an artistic project sponsored by LUMA Foundation with no shortage of local connections. (The founder, Swiss art patron Maja Hoffmann, has a house in Gstaad.) ‘A lot of artworks fail because normally public spaces are no go in Switzerland,’ Hefti assures me. They had to carry out all sorts of tests to show that the work would have no permanent character and to determine how it would behave.

The powers that be were ultimately swayed by the fact that the artist worked closely with companies like SWARCO specializing in reflective road markings made with minute glass beads (Reflexglasperlen in German) added to the striping. Hailing from northern Bohemia, renowned for its high-quality glassware, Daniel Swarovski (1862-1956) and his heirs made their name in the manufacture of precision-cut crystals that looked remarkably like diamonds and other gemstones, refracting light in a rainbow spectrum. In time, their range of products came to include optical instruments, cutting tools, lighting designs, luminous road signals and markings, besides jewelry, fashion accessories and crystal figurines. Though not a subsidiary company, SWARCO was established in 1969 by Manfred Swarovski, one of the founder’s many descendants.

How Hefti came to discover the rainbow effect produced by the tiny high index glass beads that SWARCO has been manufacturing for over 40 years is still another story, told by way of an excursus on glass-making. ‘It took humanity a long time to find out how to make flat glass,’ he pronounces, before launching into a detailed explanation. ‘When it comes to glass pearls, it’s even more high-tech,’ Hefti resumes. ‘You take glass flakes and grind them into a powder, which you put into a vertical oven and heat up with gas at a precise temperature until the powder liquefies. Then the glass collects like rain drops in a cloud, it falls and, paff, you frieze it by pumping cold air into it – and you have the perfect round shape of glass pearls.’

One warm April day, Hefti looked out of his studio in Zurich as road markings were being repainted on the street. He became curious when he saw one of the men spray the freshly-striped lines with powder and asked him what they were doing. The man said he was spraying the surface with glass beads, which reflect the white paint colour when headlights are shone on them at night. Hefti took some of the powder, scattered it directly onto the pavement and suddenly a faint rainbow appeared. When he asked what was going on, he was told this effect can sometimes occur but is considered a fault.

Mistakes such as this are grist to Hefti’s mill. The artist, who trained to be an engineer before studying industrial design and photography, is always on the lookout for what others deem to be production flaws. His own work often comes out of this productive gap. Over the years, Hefti has grown adept at convincing industrial manufacturers that changing a certain factor in the production can yield interesting results. ‘You have to tickle them in the right spot: their pride; you have to challenge them a bit,’ he says.

On this occasion, Hefti visited SWARCO’s reflective glass bead factory in Austria and succeeded in getting them to enlarge the size of glass beads so as to reinforce the rainbow effect. ‘Together we created a whole new line of “pearls”,’ he says proudly. ‘I couldn’t do it myself; they would not do it by themselves,’ he adds. As far as Hefti is concerned, the resulting artwork – titled High Index Beads, refracted and reflected (2016) after SWARCO’s signature product – is a joint effort.

The title points to the unusually high refraction index of said glass beads. Glass has the capacity to refract, reflect and transmit light, not unlike water droplets in what is commonly known as the rainbow. To explain the physics behind the optical illusion, Hefti adduces the image of the crystal ball fortunetellers use to see into the future: if sunlight penetrates it, the ball refracts light and separates it, generating a rainbow effect. But then this refraction is mirrored at the other end of the glass sphere and because it is round, it is reflected back. He concludes: ‘That’s what they are, these glass pearls: tiny little balls, perfectly round, spread on the street where the paint is.’

And how does one account for the fact that you only see your own rainbow-like halo and not your neighbour’s standing beside you? ‘It’s crazy,’ Hefti concedes. ‘I can’t give you an explanation because I don’t understand it yet. It’s also a new work for me.’ Does he think he will remake it elsewhere? ‘I could imagine it as a permanent installation somewhere,’ Hefti ventures. ‘But maybe not; maybe it’s just a gesture.’

The streets of Gstaad might as well be paved with gold. The main promenade of the exclusive alpine ski resort, which plays host to the international jet set, is lined with designer boutiques and luxury hotels. For a period of three weeks this summer, Swiss artist Raphael Hefti had the pavements of Gstaad and the neighboring Saanen village spray-painted with pulverized Swarovski ‘diamonds’ – to dazzling and quite uncanny effect.

Unveiled on the final weekend of July, this somewhat elusive work was presented as part of the artist-run Project 1049, which Hefti himself initiated, working with a close-knit group of friends and collaborators whom he got to know while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. During the day, if one stood over the painted stretch of street with one’s back to the sun, an iridescent halo would miraculously appear around one’s shadow, yet only at a certain angle and in direct sunlight. At night, one could still experience the work by torchlight, say, but then a more diffuse prismatic light would envelop one’s hands and whole body, in lieu of the starker two-dimensional rainbow effect centred on the viewer’s head and shoulders in the daytime version.

‘You either see it, or you don’t,’ as Hefti says. ‘I didn’t want anything indicating that it’s an artwork.’ In the absence of any kind of label drawing attention to it, the work could go unnoticed. At a glance, the spray-painted surface looked no different to the rest of the road. So much so that the mother of Gstaad-born curator Olympia Scarry, having stumbled upon the piece in town, thought she had better alert her eye doctor, who had warned her of possible side effects following an operation. ‘I was afraid something was not right with my vision,’ she told Hefti, after repeatedly seeing rainbow reflections when walking around Gstaad.

Hefti relates the anecdote to me in a local bakery over coffee and bread rolls with tiny red-and-white flags sticking out of them, made especially for the Swiss National Day on 1 August. Swiss people are inordinately proud of their streets and how clean they are; nowhere more so than in Gstaad. Getting permission to apply anything to them was no mean feat despite it being an artistic project sponsored by LUMA Foundation with no shortage of local connections. (The founder, Swiss art patron Maja Hoffmann, has a house in Gstaad.) ‘A lot of artworks fail because normally public spaces are no go in Switzerland,’ Hefti assures me. They had to carry out all sorts of tests to show that the work would have no permanent character and to determine how it would behave.

The powers that be were ultimately swayed by the fact that the artist worked closely with companies like SWARCO specializing in reflective road markings made with minute glass beads (Reflexglasperlen in German) added to the striping. Hailing from northern Bohemia, renowned for its high-quality glassware, Daniel Swarovski (1862-1956) and his heirs made their name in the manufacture of precision-cut crystals that looked remarkably like diamonds and other gemstones, refracting light in a rainbow spectrum. In time, their range of products came to include optical instruments, cutting tools, lighting designs, luminous road signals and markings, besides jewelry, fashion accessories and crystal figurines. Though not a subsidiary company, SWARCO was established in 1969 by Manfred Swarovski, one of the founder’s many descendants.

How Hefti came to discover the rainbow effect produced by the tiny high index glass beads that SWARCO has been manufacturing for over 40 years is still another story, told by way of an excursus on glass-making. ‘It took humanity a long time to find out how to make flat glass,’ he pronounces, before launching into a detailed explanation. ‘When it comes to glass pearls, it’s even more high-tech,’ Hefti resumes. ‘You take glass flakes and grind them into a powder, which you put into a vertical oven and heat up with gas at a precise temperature until the powder liquefies. Then the glass collects like rain drops in a cloud, it falls and, paff, you frieze it by pumping cold air into it – and you have the perfect round shape of glass pearls.’

One warm April day, Hefti looked out of his studio in Zurich as road markings were being repainted on the street. He became curious when he saw one of the men spray the freshly-striped lines with powder and asked him what they were doing. The man said he was spraying the surface with glass beads, which reflect the white paint colour when headlights are shone on them at night. Hefti took some of the powder, scattered it directly onto the pavement and suddenly a faint rainbow appeared. When he asked what was going on, he was told this effect can sometimes occur but is considered a fault.

Mistakes such as this are grist to Hefti’s mill. The artist, who trained to be an engineer before studying industrial design and photography, is always on the lookout for what others deem to be production flaws. His own work often comes out of this productive gap. Over the years, Hefti has grown adept at convincing industrial manufacturers that changing a certain factor in the production can yield interesting results. ‘You have to tickle them in the right spot: their pride; you have to challenge them a bit,’ he says.

On this occasion, Hefti visited SWARCO’s reflective glass bead factory in Austria and succeeded in getting them to enlarge the size of glass beads so as to reinforce the rainbow effect. ‘Together we created a whole new line of “pearls”,’ he says proudly. ‘I couldn’t do it myself; they would not do it by themselves,’ he adds. As far as Hefti is concerned, the resulting artwork – titled High Index Beads, refracted and reflected (2016) after SWARCO’s signature product – is a joint effort.

The title points to the unusually high refraction index of said glass beads. Glass has the capacity to refract, reflect and transmit light, not unlike water droplets in what is commonly known as the rainbow. To explain the physics behind the optical illusion, Hefti adduces the image of the crystal ball fortunetellers use to see into the future: if sunlight penetrates it, the ball refracts light and separates it, generating a rainbow effect. But then this refraction is mirrored at the other end of the glass sphere and because it is round, it is reflected back. He concludes: ‘That’s what they are, these glass pearls: tiny little balls, perfectly round, spread on the street where the paint is.’

And how does one account for the fact that you only see your own rainbow-like halo and not your neighbour’s standing beside you? ‘It’s crazy,’ Hefti concedes. ‘I can’t give you an explanation because I don’t understand it yet. It’s also a new work for me.’ Does he think he will remake it elsewhere? ‘I could imagine it as a permanent installation somewhere,’ Hefti ventures. ‘But maybe not; maybe it’s just a gesture.’

The streets of Gstaad might as well be paved with gold. The main promenade of the exclusive alpine ski resort, which plays host to the international jet set, is lined with designer boutiques and luxury hotels. For a period of three weeks this summer, Swiss artist Raphael Hefti had the pavements of Gstaad and the neighboring Saanen village spray-painted with pulverized Swarovski ‘diamonds’ – to dazzling and quite uncanny effect.

Unveiled on the final weekend of July, this somewhat elusive work was presented as part of the artist-run Project 1049, which Hefti himself initiated, working with a close-knit group of friends and collaborators whom he got to know while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. During the day, if one stood over the painted stretch of street with one’s back to the sun, an iridescent halo would miraculously appear around one’s shadow, yet only at a certain angle and in direct sunlight. At night, one could still experience the work by torchlight, say, but then a more diffuse prismatic light would envelop one’s hands and whole body, in lieu of the starker two-dimensional rainbow effect centred on the viewer’s head and shoulders in the daytime version.

‘You either see it, or you don’t,’ as Hefti says. ‘I didn’t want anything indicating that it’s an artwork.’ In the absence of any kind of label drawing attention to it, the work could go unnoticed. At a glance, the spray-painted surface looked no different to the rest of the road. So much so that the mother of Gstaad-born curator Olympia Scarry, having stumbled upon the piece in town, thought she had better alert her eye doctor, who had warned her of possible side effects following an operation. ‘I was afraid something was not right with my vision,’ she told Hefti, after repeatedly seeing rainbow reflections when walking around Gstaad.

Hefti relates the anecdote to me in a local bakery over coffee and bread rolls with tiny red-and-white flags sticking out of them, made especially for the Swiss National Day on 1 August. Swiss people are inordinately proud of their streets and how clean they are; nowhere more so than in Gstaad. Getting permission to apply anything to them was no mean feat despite it being an artistic project sponsored by LUMA Foundation with no shortage of local connections. (The founder, Swiss art patron Maja Hoffmann, has a house in Gstaad.) ‘A lot of artworks fail because normally public spaces are no go in Switzerland,’ Hefti assures me. They had to carry out all sorts of tests to show that the work would have no permanent character and to determine how it would behave.

The powers that be were ultimately swayed by the fact that the artist worked closely with companies like SWARCO specializing in reflective road markings made with minute glass beads (Reflexglasperlen in German) added to the striping. Hailing from northern Bohemia, renowned for its high-quality glassware, Daniel Swarovski (1862-1956) and his heirs made their name in the manufacture of precision-cut crystals that looked remarkably like diamonds and other gemstones, refracting light in a rainbow spectrum. In time, their range of products came to include optical instruments, cutting tools, lighting designs, luminous road signals and markings, besides jewelry, fashion accessories and crystal figurines. Though not a subsidiary company, SWARCO was established in 1969 by Manfred Swarovski, one of the founder’s many descendants.

How Hefti came to discover the rainbow effect produced by the tiny high index glass beads that SWARCO has been manufacturing for over 40 years is still another story, told by way of an excursus on glass-making. ‘It took humanity a long time to find out how to make flat glass,’ he pronounces, before launching into a detailed explanation. ‘When it comes to glass pearls, it’s even more high-tech,’ Hefti resumes. ‘You take glass flakes and grind them into a powder, which you put into a vertical oven and heat up with gas at a precise temperature until the powder liquefies. Then the glass collects like rain drops in a cloud, it falls and, paff, you frieze it by pumping cold air into it – and you have the perfect round shape of glass pearls.’

One warm April day, Hefti looked out of his studio in Zurich as road markings were being repainted on the street. He became curious when he saw one of the men spray the freshly-striped lines with powder and asked him what they were doing. The man said he was spraying the surface with glass beads, which reflect the white paint colour when headlights are shone on them at night. Hefti took some of the powder, scattered it directly onto the pavement and suddenly a faint rainbow appeared. When he asked what was going on, he was told this effect can sometimes occur but is considered a fault.

Mistakes such as this are grist to Hefti’s mill. The artist, who trained to be an engineer before studying industrial design and photography, is always on the lookout for what others deem to be production flaws. His own work often comes out of this productive gap. Over the years, Hefti has grown adept at convincing industrial manufacturers that changing a certain factor in the production can yield interesting results. ‘You have to tickle them in the right spot: their pride; you have to challenge them a bit,’ he says.

On this occasion, Hefti visited SWARCO’s reflective glass bead factory in Austria and succeeded in getting them to enlarge the size of glass beads so as to reinforce the rainbow effect. ‘Together we created a whole new line of “pearls”,’ he says proudly. ‘I couldn’t do it myself; they would not do it by themselves,’ he adds. As far as Hefti is concerned, the resulting artwork – titled High Index Beads, refracted and reflected (2016) after SWARCO’s signature product – is a joint effort.

The title points to the unusually high refraction index of said glass beads. Glass has the capacity to refract, reflect and transmit light, not unlike water droplets in what is commonly known as the rainbow. To explain the physics behind the optical illusion, Hefti adduces the image of the crystal ball fortunetellers use to see into the future: if sunlight penetrates it, the ball refracts light and separates it, generating a rainbow effect. But then this refraction is mirrored at the other end of the glass sphere and because it is round, it is reflected back. He concludes: ‘That’s what they are, these glass pearls: tiny little balls, perfectly round, spread on the street where the paint is.’

And how does one account for the fact that you only see your own rainbow-like halo and not your neighbour’s standing beside you? ‘It’s crazy,’ Hefti concedes. ‘I can’t give you an explanation because I don’t understand it yet. It’s also a new work for me.’ Does he think he will remake it elsewhere? ‘I could imagine it as a permanent installation somewhere,’ Hefti ventures. ‘But maybe not; maybe it’s just a gesture.’

Collecting the uncollectable

A version of this essay appeared in the current issue of Frieze Week magazine:

‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in [the collector]; it is he who lives in them’, wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1931 essay titled ‘Unpacking My Library – A Talk on Collecting’. Speaking at an event dedicated to ‘collecting performance’ hosted by the London non-profit Delfina Foundation, Marseille-based psychiatrists and collectors Marc and Josée Gensollen related Benjamin’s claim concerning books to their own experience of collecting live art. For them, ‘the most intimate relationship to an artwork lies in its activation’.

The collector couple not only lives in and among the artworks displayed in their home, which doubles as an exhibition space open to the public by appointment, they also make some of these works ‘come alive in them’ by activating them for visitors. Take Tino Sehgal’s 2003 work This is about that I have witnessed Marc Gensollen perform in the privacy of his home, before seeing the collector faithfully reenact it again two years later, this time in public, at the Delfina Foundation.

The Gensollens, who started collecting minimal and conceptual art as well as video work in the 1970s, have been drawn from the outset to the type of object that eludes the collector’s grasp and cannot be fully owned. Laurence Weiner’s seminal text-based installations that hold pride of place in their collection need not have any material presence and anyone in theory can walk away with the work simply by memorizing the words. Original video works tend to be part of limited edition series, not unlike pieces by Tino Sehgal in this respect, which come in editions of four with the artist retaining the right to exhibit them.

That they are not unique objects, nor even objects per se, might put some collectors off. For Jonathon Carroll, speaking in his dual role of collector and dealer of what can broadly be termed ‘multimedia’ or ‘new media’ art, the ‘concern about reproduction is a complete red herring; nobody should care about it and nobody does.’ The code of the very first work he acquired in 2000, 33 Questions per Minute by Rafael Lozano-Hemmel, an artist that Carroll/Fletcher now represents, is freely available online. New digital technologies and platforms such as Open Source or Creative Commons have made the very idea of ownership feel somewhat redundant and spawned a breed of collector whose motivations go beyond that of mere acquisition. ‘To some extent, being a collector today is about patronage, supporting the artist,’ says Carroll.

Rooted in the radical experiments of the 1960s, time-based media like performance, video, sound and digital art (a label that few practitioners like to be associated with), though no longer new, are still relative newcomers in art historical terms, which may explain their appeal to this new species of philanthropically-minded collector. Aimed explicitly at ‘a young generation’ of patrons, Outset Young Production Fund has thus contributed towards the recently-launched Moving Image Fund of Museums, initiated by artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen with Thomas Dane Gallery to help regional museums in the UK build up their collections of artist film and video works. Though less expensive to acquire than painting, sculpture and other more easily collectable media, these frequently entail high production, conservation and display costs that make them unaffordable for most public institutions.

Tate itself, which has no dedicated budget to either performance or moving image, has benefited from initiatives such as the Artangel Collection at Tate or the Outset Frieze Fund (OFT) specifically designed to endow its collection. Thanks to the former, multimedia installations of often baffling complexity, commissioned and produced by the London non-profit, have entered Tate’s collection at a rate of about one per year since the launch of Artangel Collection in 2011. The OFT allowed Tate curators working together with international peers to have their pick of artworks sold at Frieze Art Fair, before it wound up in 2014, having reached the 100th work mark. (The scheme will be reestablished this year, albeit using a more traditional corporate funding model.) ‘Among the key works added [to the collection] were seminal video and digital works of art, such as Mark Leckey’s Made in ‘Eaven (2004) and Andrea Fraser’s Projection (2008) [as well as] the first performance work to be integrated in the national collection: Roman Ondák’s Good Feelings in Good Times (2003)’, comments Outset founder Candida Gertler.

Not all new media are as well represented as they should be in public collections or by galleries. Curator of Digital at the Serpentine Galleries, and one of a handful to hold that title, Ben Vickers thinks that there is ‘a black hole’ in museum collections when it comes to net art – particularly by Jodi, Ubermorgen, Heath Bunting, Olia Lialina, and other artists working in the 90s with the rise of the World Wide Web, who produced work dealing with the medium specificity of the Internet and digital technology. ‘That work never made it into museums’, he says. For Vickers, the fact that a gallery like Carroll/Fletcher, which has only been around since 2012, has in its stable of artists so many seminal figures associated with the digital medium – from Ubermorgen to Eva and Franco Mattes to Thomson & Craighead – is indicative of this neglect. Since none of these artists were represented by more established galleries, Carroll/Fletcher ‘stepped into that position and represented them all’.

Carroll himself is keen to correct the misconception that his gallery has an exclusive focus on new media-based art. One of the artists Carroll/Fletcher represents, Christine Sun Kim, is featured in this year’s Live section of Frieze London. The deaf artist will work with performers to generate more or less rude and audible sounds that she can sense, responding to the noisy surroundings of the fair. Now in its third year, Live is a subsidized platform for ‘performance-led or active installations’, as Frieze artistic director Joanna Stella-Sawicka puts it, rather than ‘performance in the strict sense’. Stella-Sawicka invokes in this regard the way Tate curators chose to frame things at the Switch House with talk of ‘How art became active’, which reflects a wider ‘active turn’ that visionary collectors like the Gensollens embody.

Collecting performance used to mean buying photographs, video footage and other physical traces of the live event, which is still the case with a lot of the historical performance pieces featured in the main or the Focus sections of the fair. But more adventurous collectors are increasingly adopting what Teresa Calonje Trenor – in the introduction to an imaginative collection of essays and interviews titled Live Forever. Collecting Live Art (2014) – identifies as an alternative strategy, namely collecting the ‘original live experience’ with a view to re-activating it. Though the two strategies are not mutually exclusive, the Live section creates a space where the latter can happen.

Despite or because of their ambitious nature, time-based media of every ilk tend to be relegated to the peripheral or ‘young’ sections of a fair, such as Focus. Showing this kind of work, which often requires a concentrated attention span, in the competitive environment of a fair can be a challenge. Having to hire performers for a live artwork or building a closed environment needed for a quality projection represents a substantial outlay with no guarantee of an immediate return. This does not stop galleries like Hoxton-based Seventeen from choosing for its solo presentation a technically-demanding new work by Canadian artist Jon Rafman. The proposed immersive multimedia installation comprises a central sculptural object acting as a link between the reality of the seated viewing platform and the simulated landscape watched through VR headsets, using Oculus Rift technology.

According to Stella-Sawicka, the young section is a reliable barometer when it comes to sassing out ‘how a generation is responding to the current times: what is the mood, what are the trends’. If the Focus offerings over the past few years are anything to go by, art with a digital sensibility is definitely on the rise.