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.

Advertisements

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.

Finnish Landscape

This Critics’ Pick appeared on artforum.com:

Kader Attia, Mimesis as Resistance, 2013–16, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 7 seconds. Installation view.

This open-air museum, like all others, is an elaborate fiction. Confined to an island and only accessible by a footbridge, the place—with its traditional wooden buildings, original furnishings, and costumed interpreters—appears to be caught in a time warp. Commissioned by the nonprofit Checkpoint Helsinki and curated by Joanna Warsza, “Finnish Landscape” features ten local and international artists subjecting this bucolic yet artificial landscape to critical scrutiny.An outline of Seurasaari looks like an elongated leaf in Erik Bruun’s arresting graphic design created for the poster of the exhibition, which takes its title from a sonnet penned by Bertolt Brecht during his exile in Finland.

One of the more playful interventions, Ilya Orlov’s A House with the View, 2016, has a mechanized, naked male mannequin shielding itself with a round, rotating landscape painting—one of the artist’s own—as if it were a fig leaf. The negative space made in freshly dug-up ground for Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Jumana Manna, and Haig Aivazian’s piece Accounts of Things and People That Have Been Moved, 2016, acts as a poignant reminder that the wooden structures housed on this island were wrenched out of their natural environment in order to be preserved here.

Presented in archival boxes throughout six guest rooms of different houses on the island, Liisa Roberts’s series of photographs titled “Remnants,” 2011–16, all taken at the Tapiola housing estate, a utopian garden city built in the 1950s, alludes to the practice of storing objects in the houses at Seurasaari for the winter, only to bring them out again in the summer. Such cycles inform Kader Attia’s video installation Mimesis as Resistance, 2013–16, featuring a lyrebird, which has the ability to imitate all natural and unnatural sounds, including that of its own unmaking.

 

Experimental Education Protocol

This piece appeared on artforum.com:

Participants in the Experimental Education Protocol. (Except where noted, all photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

CAN EDUCATION BE SEXY? I didn’t used to think so. Twelve days in the company of twelve near-strangers on the volcanic Dodecanese island of Nisyros made me reconsider.

What brought us there—from Athens, Stockholm, Berlin, Brussels, Kassel, Hamburg, and Vancouver—was the Experimental Education Protocol, admittedly not the sexiest of banners. Drafted by artist Angelo Plessas, EEP or #exedupro—in its snappier, Instagrammable version—proposes “an alternative educational model” based on “experiential and communal learning.” For Plessas, whose Eternal Internet Brotherhood has been meeting every year since 2012 in far-flung places around the world, you stand a better chance to learn something from people you’ve not met before, particularly if you’re gathering in “extreme places.”

Sepake Angiama led the way with her flag project. “Desire lines” or “desire paths,” we learned, are shortcuts made in defiance of urban planning. “One person may forge it but others follow it,” Angiama told me as we pored over the “lines of desire” others had drawn onto a piece of cloth for her to embroider with threads of their choosing. Each came with a story, told and retold. (In time, the sewing became a collective endeavor as Angiama struggled to keep up with our storytelling.) Nisyros-devotee Greg Haji Joannides, who has been coming to the island since he was a child and was our point of contact with the islanders, related how he first paddled there with his father from the nearby island of Kos after the engine of their boat went off.

Left: Artists Garrett Nelson and Oliver Laric. Right: Artists Andreas Angelidakis, Sepake Angiama, and Arvo Leo.

For the third summer running, Joannides’s Sterna Art Project set up camp in an old-fashioned spa hotel located next to the crumbling Baths of Mandraki in Loutra, which were to house the exhibition at the outcome of our residency. These twin buildings, facing a small fishing harbor and backing onto a whitewashed former desalination factory, became the center of our activities.

Poet Quinn Latimer used the thermal baths, fueled by hot springs, for daily, twenty-minute one-on-one reading sessions staged in adjoining cubicles. That way the reading partners could (just about) hear without seeing one another “taking the waters” in their respective bathtubs. The acoustic or acousmatic potential of the baths was not lost on her partner, sound artist Paolo Thorsen-Nagel. “It’s like the Pythagorean veil,” he noted, alluding to pupils of Pythagoras who absorbed the philosopher’s teachings in silence from behind a veil-like partition.

By day three we had settled into something of a routine, if not exactly a schedule. Before the daily 11 AM meetings, everyone occupied themselves as they pleased. Angiama was busy embroidering the flag at the crack of dawn. Led by Andreas Angelidakis, toenail-painting “workshops” were on offer. The Greek island seemed to bring out the athletes in us. There were those who ran or swam a mile first thing. Watching topless artists Oliver Laric and Garrett Nelson doing their pushups in the baking sun one morning, Angiama sighed: “I’m just so glad I wasn’t born a boy.”

Left: Urbanist Mia Lundstrom and writer Quinn Latimer. Right: Artist Paolo Thorsen-Nagel.

More structured learning activities, such as Plessas’s own talisman-making workshop or Angelidakis’s anger-release exercises drawing on educational toy volcano molds, took place in a common room overlooking the Kos caldera with the volcanic islet of Strongili—the Round One—in its midst. This was as close to a classroom as it came.

On Bastille Day, the room was transformed as if by magic into a banqueting hall in one of the more spontaneous and enjoyable events the first week held in store for us. Orchestrated by Nelson, the evening began with cocktails and dakos (the Greek take on bruschetta) inspired by Pierre Balmain’s Vent Vert salad from Alice B. Toklas’s Cook Book. Following Nelson’s readings of Mary Oliver’s poems as well as one of his own, we feasted on Oliver’s July 14 salad, stuffed cucumbers, Greek eggplant gazpacho, and fried fish that Nelson had spent much of the day preparing with the artist Dora Economou.

Then came the party inside the ruined Baths lit up at night with sepia-colored street light, which melded beautifully with the designer gold suits Nelson (and some of us) sported for the catwalk for which we had been collectively recruited. And the group night skinny dip under the stars, once we were exhausted from dancing and Laric’s DJing.

Much of the learning from one another happened at the beach. Although opinions were divided as to which is the best on the island, Pachia Ammos, a nude beach with a fine stretch of dark brown volcanic sand—too hot to walk on barefoot—was the default option for afternoon outings. It was there that Thorsen-Nagel got us to listen to the sea with a hydrophone by sticking two microphones into the wet sand.

The beach is also where we were all, one by one, initiated into the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu by Laric, who sees its mechanics as the perfect antidote to the “ambivalence” (or did he mean ambiguity?) of his life as an artist. “I’ve seen him do it so many times I don’t even find it erotic any more,” Latimer pronounced as we saw from a little distance Laric teaching moves that could easily be mistaken for sex positions to Swedish urbanist Mia Lundstrom.

Left: Writer Tess Edmonson and artist Angelo Plessas. Right: Garrett Nelson, Sepake Angiama, and Oliver Laric.

At the Bastille Day–themed dinner, Plessas reminisced about how he and Angelidakis—aka Pale Blue—met online and then, that very same day, IRL. This was on July 17, almost exactly seventeen years ago. A numerology workshop seemed in order. Instead, we marked the anniversary date with uncoordinated yet strangely consonant efforts, from flower garlands and bracelets to custom-made T-shirts and ice cream flavors named after Angelo (watermelon) and Andreas (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups) at our favorite ice cream place—an inspired idea by Arvo Leo, who was full of them.

The Experimental Educational Protocol evinced “the desire for broader regional feedback” from local residents and tourists alike. In some ways we got more than we’d bargained for. Just as we were getting ready for the opening at the Baths of Mandraki—bringing together material and immaterial traces of our activities—a spoof poster came to our attention. Modeled on the Sterna Art Project 2016 announcement posted around the island, the mock “Manifest of Abstract Engagement” listed Martin Kippenberger, Cheese Burger, and Anish Kapoor among the participants.

That taught us.

Double Take: Izolyatsia and Pinchuk Art Centre

This feature on the Pinchuk Art Centre and Izolyatsia, two Kyiv-based non-profits, appeared in The Calvert Journal:

  • Izolyatsia 2

    Izolyatsia in its new Kiev Shipyards site. Image: Dima Sergeev

No one has done more in recent years to put Ukrainian contemporary art on the map than the PinchukArtCentre and IZOLYATSIA. On the face of it, these two private institutions established by well-connected and generally well-liked industrialists – Victor Pinchuk and Luba Michailova – have a lot in common. Built around their founders’ personal collections, each in its own way nurtures the local art scene and attempts to build an audience for contemporary art at home, while giving Ukrainian artists greater international visibility and creating opportunities to show their work abroad.

This was not always the case – at least not as far as local artists are concerned. “The PinchukArtCentre has started to change its position but before it was not interested at all in the Ukrainian art scene. It was this huge institution built by a rich guy to show only stars from the West,” says Crimean-born artist and activist Mariia Kulykivska, who has worked with both institutions and is in a good position to compare them. To her mind, “IZOLYATSIA is a less established and glamorous place, closer to the real people”. Although IZOLYATSIA is not immune to the allure of superstars either, in Kulykivska’s opinion, “it started showing Ukrainian artists sooner”.

As well as teaching at the PinchukArtCentre, in 2013 Kulykivska was nominated for the sought-after Pinchuk Art Prize. Alternating with the more prestigious international Future Generation Prize (and a fraction of its monetary value), the bi-yearly national prize was set up in 2009 as part of a “changing strategy” designed to offer “consistent support for developing an art scene”, in the words of the PinchukArtCentre’s deputy artistic director Björn Geldhof. In addition to covering the production costs for new work, the prize gives the twenty nominees exposure and curatorial support in the context of the Pinchuk Art Prize show. The winner is also automatically short-listed for the Future Generation Prize the following year.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the PinchukArtCentre blazed a trail. The museum owes some of its iconic status to the fact that it was the only space dedicated to contemporary art in the whole of Ukraine, before IZOLYATSIA opened its doors to the public in 2010 – not in Kyiv but in Donetsk in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine – and long before the Euromaidan protests of 2013, which stimulated the growth of self-sustained organizations and grass-root initiatives that offered an alternative to both these platforms for aspiring Ukrainian artists.

“It was the PinchukArtCenter who started this project; people know Ukraine in contemporary art through the Pinchuk,” Michailova concedes in a Skype interview. “At a certain point it became clear that he took a capitalist approach of capitalizing your private love for art, which is fine. Every country has to have ten more Pinchuks. We tried to build a different platform.”

The difference between these two rival institutions is partly one of style. If both non-profits are open to visitors free of charge, the PinchukArtCentre’s well-attended openings are by invitation only and have an aura of VIP exclusivity about them. Spread over six floors with an elegant café at the top, boasting stunning views of the city, the Philippe Chiambaretta-redesigned complex in the central Besarabka area of Kyiv looks and feels like a white cube. Given that many of the artists who form the basis of the oligarch’s collection – from Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons to Takashi Murakami and Anthony Gormley – are represented by Larry Gagosian and Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, this seems fitting.

IZOYLYATSIA has none of the “luxury-style exhibitions, [nor] the pretension” of its counterpart, as Kulykivska puts it. The rented four-storey building situated on the premises of a working shipyard next to the river, in the increasingly trendy but still somewhat peripheral Podol neighbourhood, retains something of the gritty feel and working class aesthetic of IZOLYATSIA’s original, sprawling factory home in the industrial city of Donetsk, where Michailova hails from.

Set up in a disused insulation materials plant that her father Ivan Michailov directed, IZOLYATSIA was inspired by Zollverein in Essen, a repurposed Bauhaus-style coal mine in the Ruhr area that Michailova visited in 2010, the year when Essen was the cultural capital of Europe. “I saw what my Donetsk could be in twenty years, when people breathe new life into industrial heritage,” says Michailova. She considers the preservation of the country’s Soviet-era heritage an integral part of IZOLYATSIA’s mission, together with creating an infrastructure for art making and educating the public about twentieth and twenty-first-century art, which are not taught at school.

Michailova, who developed her taste for contemporary art while visiting museums around the world on business trips, started collecting social realist art in the 1990s in an attempt to preserve it after the fall of communism. This became the core of IZOLYATSIA’s collection, which grew organically to include works made by international and Ukrainian artists in the context of residencies and for specific exhibitions staged at IZOLYATSIA, such as the 2012 show “Gender” for which Kulykivska fashioned twenty life-sized plaster clones of her body; three additional soap-based casts made at a later date were left to slowly dissolve in IZOLYATSIA’s garden.

When IZOLYATSIA’s premises were seized by armed pro-Russian separatists in June 2014, these were used as shooting targets by the militiamen, who destroyed many of the artworks that they considered to be “degenerate”. “I’m still not over the shock of losing most of my collection,” confides Michailova, who estimates the loss at about two-thirds. What could be salvaged was moved to Kyiv along with the staff, ushering in a new period of “IZOLYATSIA in exile”. As Geldhof points out, “The tragedy of losing a space is also in a way a tragedy of losing identity. Especially as it’s not just a venue that they lost; they lost their origin, the place where they came from.”

Understandably, IZOLYATSIA has been outspoken in its indictment of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its backing of the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, which relegated the institution to the status of “cultural refugees” in their own country. Recent exhibitions such as “Reconstruction of Memory” (February-March 2016) tackled these sensitive issues head on, whereas the guerrilla occupation of the Russian pavilion by IZOLYATSIA members and associated artists (Kulykivska among them) sporting military fatigues bearing the logo “#onvacation” at the Venice Biennale in 2015 stole the show from the PinchukArtCentre’s own project for the Ukrainian national pavilion, addressing the question of “transparency” in a group show emphatically titled “Hope!” curated by Geldhof.

The fact that the founder of the PinchukArtCentre derives much of his business profit from trade with Russia invites a more cautious approach. “We’ve never shied away from the political,” Geldhof assures me in an exchange over Skype. The R.E.P. (revolutionary experimental space) group – whose individual members like Zhanna Kadyrova, Nikita Kadan and Lada Nakonechnaya the PinchukArtCentre has worked with and supported over the years – stood out for him precisely because it “wasn’t afraid to touch upon sensitive political themes in a rather direct way”. Be that as it may, exhibitions such as “Fear and Hope” in 2014 – made soon after 100 hundred people were shot in the streets of Kyiv – have the merit of addressing a potentially incendiary situation “in a non-partisan way”. In Geldhof’s eyes, “by doing that you create the possibility for a conversation.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marguerite Humeau

This interview with Marguerite Humeau was featured on the cover of Metropolis M’s summer issue:

 

Agnieszka Gratza: You studied at the Design Academy in Eindhoven and then at the Royal College of Arts in Design Interactions. How did you make the transition from design to art?

Marguerite Humeau: My background is in design but “design art” doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not a “design artist”; I’m an artist. I studied textile in Paris and then I spent two years at the Design Academy. It was a bit too product-oriented for me. So I looked around and a friend of mine was in Design Interactions at the RCA. The tutors there were all designers working in the space they called “critical design” or “speculative design”. What I loved about it was the intellectual rigour. The focus was on emergent technologies but most of the projects were not answers to problems, they were really trying to design scenarios, to push things to the extreme and question things.

AG: Is that what people mean by “speculative design”?

MH: This is more “critical design,” I would say. Speculative design, which grew out of critical design, is more about “what if?” scenarios: what if this hadn’t happened, what could have happened? Where my work is still influenced by design is this idea of making a proposal for something new, instead of just commenting. You could make a proposal for another world; it doesn’t have to be a proposal for a coffee pot.

AG: Some of the works you produce are signed by Le Studio Humain.

MH: No, that\s my collaborator. Le Studio Humain is Benjamin Penaguin who is an art director and we started collaborating when I graduated. I wanted to find a way for the physical pieces to exist in different contexts, like when the projects are shown in a magazine or online, and this is how we started the conversation. He does all the video work, most of my images; for example, now he’s working on the poster and the trailer for the Palais de Tokyo show.

AG: Let’s start with the Opera of Prehistoric Creatures, which is still your best known project.

MH: The first creature was my graduation project and then I developed it as an opera for an exhibition that happened the year after my graduation in 2011. I developed two creatures, “Mammoth Imperator” and “Lucy”, in 2011 and then, the following year, I had the show with the complete opera – including “Mammoth Imperator”, “Walking Whale” and “Terminator Pig” – in St Etienne, France, which toured in Europe. When I started to research this project I realized research, as well as the odyssey and the quest, would be a big part of my work as an artist.

AG: Why do you insist on styling yourself as an adventurer, an explorer? And why are your works fashioned as odysseys?

MH: Because they are. My projects always start with a mystery that I have to solve and they become these very long-term odysseys: reaching people, experts; sometimes I collaborate with hundreds of experts who advise me how to do what I want to do. It really feels like an adventure, although it’s not a physical adventure, like going to a place…

AG: So you travel vicariously, in your imagination or on the Internet?

MH: Mostly yes. When I was looking for extinct languages for Cleopatra, I contacted academics who got in touch with people in lost villages in Syria, people you would never be able to reach directly. For the show at the Palais de Tokyo I went out to the jungle in Thailand to source elephant tears. So I also travel, it’s not only on the Internet.

AG: Tell me more about the elephant tears.

MH: I’m working on a project that’s related to elephants and I wanted to see how elephants are sculpted in the temples of Anghkor Wat in Cambodia since they are considered sacred animals. This was more for my archive. Then I went to Thailand because I wanted to see real elephants. For one of the sculptures at the Palais de Tokyo I needed to get elephant tears, so I asked a driver in Thailand to take me to a specific place. I didn’t know if I would be able to get the tears or not. When I got there I took a lot of pictures and videos as documentation for my work and at some point I saw that the oldest elephant was crying natural tears. I asked the elephant keeper about it and he said it’s normal when they are old. So I took one drop, put it in a bottle and brought it back to London.

AG: But why did you need elephant tears, if it’s not a secret?

MH: My show at the Palais de Tokyo is about reenacting the origin of life and in particular the origin of sentient life. I asked zoologists: Had humans not evolved as sentient beings which species would have become dominant as a sentient species, according to them? I got a few different answers but I picked the elephants.

AG: What do you mean by “sentient”?

MG: I mean conscious. Elephants already have death rituals. I read about a researcher who was in the jungle and saw the matriarch of one elephant family that had just died. For three days all her family stayed next to her body, looking at her on the first day; on the second day some of them stayed with her body while others went to get tree leaves to cover her body with. This was all done in complete silence and then on the last day they started trumpeting and then left the body. He reckoned it was a sort of death ritual. Elephants also have a language that’s well developed and that we don’t fully know. It was recently discovered that elephants hear clouds moving and that this could explain why when there’s a drought they know where to go to get water and where there is rain, thousands of kilometers from where they are. There are a lot of fascinating facts about elephants.

AG: How does this feed into your work at the Palais de Tokyo?

MH: I’m developing a family of ten sentient elephants that I’m imagining and making into sculptures. Each has been reduced to a specific biological state or function, in the same way as my prehistoric creatures were designed to make sounds, which is why I recreated only their vocal chords and the resonance cavities. At DUVE in Berlin one sculpture, “Taweret,” was producing the elixir of life, and I also only kept those organs that I needed to produce it. In the Palais de Tokyo show, I’m exploring the same idea. Because I’m talking about sentience and biological consciousness I’ve been looking at how you artificially engineer emotions. Is it only about hormones and biological processes or is it something else? To answer your question, one of the elephants has been designed to be constantly sad. It’s also a reference to the pleureuses, the criers, of ancient history.

AG: What other emotions will these sculptures embody?

MH: They stand for emotions as well as states: one is dying; one is getting born; one is engineered to despair.

AG: And how will these sculptures be displayed?

MH: We’re building a “biological showroom”. There are three pieces but they are all part of the same installation: the family of elephants, ten sculptures producing sound and liquid; the FOXP2, a sound piece which is a choir of voices; and the fresco that will be used to cover the showroom like a carpet.

AG: How are we to understand this idea a “biological showroom”? Is it any different to displays you would see in a natural history museum, for instance?

MH: Until now I was thinking about natural history museums and laboratories. With the biological showroom, we’ve been looking at commercial spaces. I’m engineering life and death, emotions, creatures and voices in a way that raises ethical issues. Is it something we want? My sculptures are all done in 3D and they are CNC-ed, which in the industry you use for mass production on an industrial scale.

AG: What exactly is CNC?

MH: It’s a big robot that sculpts from a 3D model that Le Studio Humain produces from my drawings. It can sculpt the piece out of a big block of foam so it’s not 3D printed. 3D print is powder or plastic that you add to create a piece. CNC is exactly the opposite because it uses a big block of foam and it removes all the excess material. It looks like an archaeological excavation. It’s as though you were digging and finding the shape inside the block of foam. As my pieces are highly designed, I thought it would be interesting to present them as if it were a demonstration stand.

AG: What will this demonstration stand look like?

MH: It’s still very much in progress but imagine a platform that will be designed to showcase the family of elephants. You will have this main stand in the middle, and around the showroom you have voices that are being played.

AG: What kind of voices will they be?

MH: My idea was to recreate 108 billion voices of homo sapiens: that’s the number of humans who have been living on planet earth since the first tribes of homo sapiens, a 100,000 years ago. I thought, what if I could get all of humanity to sing at the same time?

AG: Wow.

MH: They’re reenacting the origin of language – the tilting point when the chimpanzees start to develop an articulate language. At the beginning I wanted to reenact the whole evolution of language, but it proved a bit too much, so I decided to focus on the FOXP2. That’s something I’ve read about in Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. He says that at some point there was a single chance mutation – one gene mutated allowing the larynx to go down and this is when humans started to develop language. This exact moment is what I’m focusing on. I’ve been contacting linguists around the world to try to understand what and how it happened. There are not many linguists who are specialized in that. Fifteen or twenty at most.

AG: I can’t imagine all of them have time to get into a conversation with an artist.

MH: When I work with experts it’s not a conversation as much as an email exchange. When we have all these emails, we confront them, we put all the information together and we develop the piece. I’m working with my collaborator, Pierre Lanchantin, who is based at the laboratory of voice synthesis in Cambridge. We’ve worked together already on Cleopatra’s voice. We’ll design voices that will be divided into different choirs by age; there will be 24 different groups of individuals who are signing and talking at different times.

AG: Why divide them by age?

MH: I was reading about Dante’s Paradiso, which is divided into spheres of heaven, and at the same time I was researching cloud theory and reading Benjamin Bratton’s theories on the Cloud structures which he describes as a stack. That’s how I think about this project. The dream of becoming an immaterial being. It struck me as funny that, on the one hand, you have paradise, which is in the sky and that’s supposed to be where our souls live in the afterlife and, on the other hand, we talk about the Cloud and there are all these dreams of artificial intelligence. Maybe one day we’ll only exist as souls and virtual entities.

AG: In projects such as Requiem for Harley Warren “Screams from Hell” and some of your previous works you explore geology and journeys to the centre of the earth, whereas now you’re looking at the sky, and heaven as opposed to hell.

MH: In my studio I have this graph I made. The vertical is the sky and it goes deep in the ground, and the horizontal is past times and future times. I was trying to work out where all my projects fitted on this diagram. For instance, the Opera of Prehistoric Creatures is deep in the ground, in the past, and then there’s an arrow: it goes back to the present because I’m reviving them today. Cleopatra is only time, it goes from the past to today or maybe the future. Then “Screams from Hell” is only on the vertical: from deep in the ground I’m bringing it to the surface of the earth in the gallery. The choir at the Palais de Tokyo goes from the past to the future, whereas the elephants are a parallel world: I’m not really reviving them, as you said, I’m creating them anew and trying to see how they could have evolved.

AG: The Palais de Tokyo project seems to bring together a lot of your prior interests. Would you say this is the most ambitious of your projects to date?

MH: Yes. I’ve been so lucky. It’s only my fourth solo show. It came very quickly. My first solo show was in early 2014 at la HEAD in Geneva; the second one was curated by Nadim Samman at Import Projects in October 2014; the third one was in Berlin at DUVE in April 2015; and my fourth is at the Palais de Tokyo. I was completely overwhelmed when they invited me.

AG: What about your contribution to Manifesta11? Are you one of the associate artists?

MH: Christian Jankowski came for a studio visit during Frieze Week in October, we talked and he asked me to propose something. The way it works is that they send out a list of all the professions that can be found in Zurich. You have a pdf with hundreds and hundreds of different professions, from bakers to taxi drivers to surgeons. Each artist had to propose two or three options.

AG: You don’t necessarily get your first choice then?

MH: It depended on whom they could find for you. I liked the fact that you did not propose a project but a collaboration; the project is the result of your collaboration. So I’m on an equal footing with my collaborator or “host” – that’s how Jankowski calls them. My host is an engineer at the laboratory of autonomous vehicles and he specializes in designing decision-making processes for autonomous cars.

AG: Like the google self-driving cars?

MH: He doesn’t work for google; he’s part of the Autonomous Systems Lab at ETH Zurich. They don’t only work on cars; they also work on flying, walking, underwater robots. But my host specializes in cars.

AG: Why did the idea of autonomous cars resonate with you and how does it tie in with your wider practice?

MH: The autonomous cars are in a way the new beasts. They can navigate on their own and they will eventually transport us. That’s what Matthias Bürki, my host, does: he engineers intelligence for these beasts. The project is about the origin of love. I’m engineering two beasts to interact with each other and fall in love. Apparently love appeared 150 million years ago with the first mammals. Ada Lampert, in her book The Evolution of Love, argues that love appeared with warm blood, that’s to say with the first mammals, because the hormones that are generated when you fall in love can only come from warm-blooded creatures. When researching the first mammals, I found this species called cynodonts that is a missing link between the dinosaurs and mammals. They are warm-blooded but they still lay eggs, which makes them the ancestors of the mammals. So I imagine that maybe love appeared with cynodonts, and I’m engineering two cynodonts to fall in love with each other using hormones and mating calls.

AG: And are you reconstructing them again using 3D models?

MH: Exactly, but just the parts that I need: the brain and part of the face and of their sexual organs – the hormone using organs. They are emitting hormones and mating calls and I’m filling the whole space with anti-love drugs, the drugs that are used for chemical castration. You have to imagine these two creatures: you can only see the top of their head and they are diving in this fog made of this anti-love drug.

AG: But that’s rather counter-intuitive: wouldn’t you want to spur love on, as opposed to stemming its flow?

MH: No, they are trying hard. This is a new direction in my work: creating rather than solving enigmas, mysteries and situations. That’s what I started with DUVE in Berlin.

AG: It sounds like the poison and anti-dote analogy might be useful here.

MH: Exactly. The two creatures are moving in the fog and they are engineered by my host, using skills that he’s normally using for cars but applying them to the beasts. For example, when the male sends this kind of signal the female should react this way. That’s how we try to test the interactions.

AG: And where will this be shown?

MH: It’s still a bit blurry. As part of the Manifesta brief we’re supposed to show two works: one at the host’s work space and one at Manifesta. I really want the main piece to be in my host’s work place at the university. There’s a sort of entrance hall around which there are balconies, windows and huge corridors. You could see the fog from the different levels but you wouldn’t really know what’s happening and the access would be closed to the public. I could set it up in a white cube but I think it’s more challenging to show it in a place that is not intended for displaying art. Maybe showing art in museums is a prehistoric idea.