Yearly Archives: 2009

Turning archives into social media spaces

Just spent a little while taking  a brief but enjoyable gambol in  this new gallery/museum-based social media project, Creative Spaces. It’s a beta version, but already creates a great model of how to make collections more accessible, and how to let the public use material that might otherwise be gathering dust.  I should get out more, I know, but I do like the idea of not having to travel to museums.

Creative Spaces is based on the idea of creating groups and notebooks around subject areas. They have access to the digital archives  of  nine major galleries and museums, including the Tate, the Imperial War Museum, the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The photo on the right is from a notebook  created by one user titled My Dream Green Home, which uses the collections to find inspiraton for modern green living. It shows a wartime community garden in Worcestershire in 1943, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. The original caption reads:

The English village is a closely knit community, its inhabitants good neighbours who share their labours and their surplus produce. It is thus good ground on which to organise wartime Food Production Clubs to produce more food and save shipping space and transport. Clubs are run by villagers, with help from County Authorities. At Rowney Green, Worcester, a club helps villagers to cultivate more land, keep pigs, poultry and bees. Seeds and fertilizers are bought wholesale through the club, advice comes from the County Authority through Mr S T Buckley assistant instructor in horticulture.

It was a similar photograph taken in the US that inspired artist Amy Franceschini to start the Victory Gardens project in 2007. Amy was one of the artists I met in California last week; more of that soon.

Anyway, Creative Spaces is a really excellent project. They’re looking for people to get stuck in and beta test it, so go along and try it out. Myself? I’d like to see an advanced search facility, but I’m sure there are plenty of other tweaks that you could suggest…

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“I am overpopulation”

Milicia Tomic and Roza El-Hassan

When I lived in the US, I got the idea that environmentalists there seem a lot freer with discussing the concept of overpopulation than they are here in Europe. There’s a possible reason for this. We have direct historical experience of a regimes that have practiced population control – not just in the Nazi era, but more recently in the Balkans.

European liberal politics equates  the idea of population reduction  with a kind of Malthusian misanthropy; shouldn’t we be looking for ways to feed the nine billion population sustainably, rather than to deny them? And there is almost always a subtle tang of  racism and misanthropy in the idea of population control. But what if that idea of mass sustainability is impossible? Lovelock predicts the human population will collapse to one billion by 2100.

Jonathan Porritt sounds stung in his column A Sustainable Population on the Forum For The Future site that people should even dare question his motivation for promoting the Optimum Population Trust’s “Stick At Two” campaign:

You’d have thought I’d advocated compulsory sterilisation, emasculation, euthanasia, and baby-slaughtering all in one fell swoop. Melanie Philips likened me to Pol Pot and Hitler (who was “green” after all!), and when Fox News in the US got hold of the story, every religious nutcase with nothing better to do crawled out from under their stones to suggest the best thing I could do to help address population pressure would be to top myself. Instantly. Logic and sound evidence were not much in evidence.

He insists that it’s an issue we have to consider urgently. He’s right to suggest that it’s a taboo topic; maybe with good reason, givenits history.

Trying to think of how artists would respond to the idea of  overpopulation I can only come up with two examples. The first is the Hungarian/Syrian artist Roza El-Hassan, who did a series of works over the last decade called R thinking dreaming about overpopulation, [above right] which included producing t-shirts that read “I Am Overpopulation”. Her works approach the topic from a feminist viewpoint, but also envisage it in terms of European racism. If there was any doubt about the latter element, El-Hassan participated in the billboard above with the artist Milicia Tomic. If you don’t recognise him, the person driving the Porshe in the photo is supposed to be the Islamophobic Austrian politician Jorg Haider. The peculiar artistic irony of the photo is that Jorg Haider died at the wheel of a fast car a few months ago while driving several units over the limit.

The other is the recently-mentioned Extreme Green Guerillas, who take even more provocative viewpoint by advocating – more accurately appearing to advocate – voluntary euthanasia at the age of 40.

Any other nominations for “art about overpopulation”?

Main picture: Milica Tomic and Roza El-Hassan driving in a Porsche and thinking about overpopulation by EXTRA-TERRITORIA, Vienna 2002; R. thinking dreaming about overpopulation by Roza El-Hassan, 1999

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Apocalyptica: No Blade of Grass

No Blade of GrassIf, like me, you are the sort of person who would run a mile rather than listen to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, take courage and think again. This week the programme is dramatising John Christopher’s classic science-fiction thriller No Blade of Grass. (It’s kind of John Wyndham on steroids: it also became a fairly dire movie). In it, an unknown virus wipes out all the west’s staple crops, leaving Britain starving. The country quickly descends into murderous anarchy.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the apocalyptic meme is so strong right now. It’s there in art, clearly, in movies and in BBC remakes like this and Survivors. Interestingly, just to underline the fact that the long cultural history of apocalyptic visions is not unrelated to our current environmental predicament, there’s a new edition of the book being published, with an introduction from cultural historian and ecologist Robert MacFarlane.

Listen to the drama – this week only – on BBC’s Listen Again here.

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A tale of two bankers

At the Ashden Directory blog Robert Butler writes about Mohammed Yunus, founder of Bangladesh’s Gameen Bank, and deliverer of Thursday night’s Ashden Awards lecture:

Impossible not to compare two bankers – Sir Fred Goodwin and Mohammad Yunus – two world views: one that works, one that doesn’t.

There’s something almost Wildean about Yunus’s stories. He overturns the assumptions by which a society operates. The Grameen Bank has loaned money to tens of 1000s of beggars and his bank still flourishes. Other banks that only lend to the rich (because of ‘economic realities’) have crashed.

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Transmediale 09: Survival is Tasty.

Carbon candy! So declared a certain workshop at the recent Transmediale 09:

“Driven by the often-absurd nature of politics and the collective creativity often generated from equally absurd artistic mediums, the workshop will rally around the task of hacking Cotton Candy machines.”

Appropriately titled Climate Hack, it was a project of Pixelache, Kitchen Budapest, and, and what they came up with was the DIY version of the diagram above: spun sugar installations designed for a sweet reflection on climate change. Far outside the usual dogma, for sure.

Transmediale was filled with contemplations of climate change this year, reports we make money not art. In addition to the Post Global Warming Survival Kit, the exhibit included specialità di silicio, a performance in which Swiss artist Urs Dubacher melted tools and computer parts into edible-looking meals, and a camp consisting of shelters made with recyled materials. The entire exhibition entitled Survival and Utopia, Visions of Balance in Transformation, ran for the month of February in Berlin.

Go to the Green Museum

DiverseWorks: Solution

Curated by Janet Phelps
March 6-April 18, 2009
Opening Reception: Friday, March 6, 2009, 6-8pm
DiverseWorks Main Gallery


The notion of progress is much more than a simple idea; it is a question — a 10,000-year-old experiment we have participated in but seldom controlled. Curator Janet Phelps poses it to seven accomplished multimedia artists – Jeffrey Gibson, Christopher K. Ho, Nina Katchadourian, My Barbarian, Jeanine Oleson, Joseph Smolinski and Michael Waugh with DiverseWorks’ latest exhibition, Solution. Through the use of abstract symbolism, discussion, personal reflection and political discourse, these artists explore the meaning of progress and its implications on civilizations of the past and present while offering theoretical solutions for humanities’ relationship to change and progress.  

via DiverseWorks: Celebrating 25 Years.

2009 Indy Convergence

The end of my February was spent in Indianapolis, crossroads of America, dead center of Indiana, home of the Indy Convergence. I was brought in last year and spent 30 hours making something. I decided to make a little more space for making this year and spent 10 days in Indy. As part of what was made was this short video I put together for the open lab/performance we culminated tour time together with. 

I had led a couple of workshops on sustainability in performance and also led the effort to measure our waste, primarily by weighing our waste and then running numbers on what that waste meant. Here is that video:


Taking Liberties: Exhibiting rights and flights

NASA first stereoscopic 3D images of the Sun The British Library often makes good exhibitions and the current show Taking Liberties is excellent – if you have any interest in life, other humans or have any curiosity about anything then you owe it to yourself to go (if you can’t make it to London, check it out online). It closes this Sunday (March 1 2009). At a time when there is so much talk about the hopes and fears for our future socially, economically and environmentally – the material presented in Taking Liberties maps out how ethical ideas, such as freedom of speech, equal votes and human rights, are continually fought for and the exhibition produces a thrilling sense of the vitality and courage of human agency through the ages.

The accompanying events series has included a discussion asking “Can we tackle climate change without dictatorship?”, which is available online. (It is illustrated by Nasa’s image of the earth that Stewart Brand petitioned for public access to back in 1966). But some things can’t be experienced online. Between the BL displays, which include items from Magna Carta to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man to works of Mary Wollstonecraft and The Good Friday Agreement, are oversized interactive posts that bleep too loudly for no apparent reason, but are fun nonetheless. Laws of Forests, 1225 (Copyright © The British Library Board)
I can’t remember the “citizen number” on my wrist-band but at the end of my visit my opinions were plotted against other visitors and I was firmly one of the crowd (I was quietly disappointed). Well versed in the problems of survey bias, I concluded that this implied that my political understanding sits within a fairly narrow demographic of visitors to BL, who do not find multiple choice quizzes demeaning, who like interactive displays and are not self-conscious about being noisy in exhibition spaces (aka bleeping students).

But people do miss out when they don’t go in for such gizmos. Exhibitions are sites for self-education, so good interactive displays are fun because they draw you into playing with ideas and thinking critically in a relaxed way. That’s my idea of fun. And I am not alone. My recent visit to Washington DC’s National Air and Space Museum was certainly enhanced by watching the new 3-D film (specs included) of the sun’s magnetic actives. As the Heliophysicists narrating the film explained, understanding the ‘weather’ behaviour of the sun is of new importance to the human race as we increasingly rely on satellite technology in our everyday lives – it was fascinating.

Of course, museums are far from neutral in the knowledge they present and exhibitions in every field (whether art, science or history) are created as a way of making convincing arguments through objects in public space, much as a books do through text.

The Air and Space Museum featured in the film War and Peace / Jang Aur Aman (Anand Patwardhan, 2002, 130 mins) screened recently at Tate Britain (13 February). Patwardhan’s documentation of nuclear war threats in South Asia included an interview with the curators of the D.C. museum explaining that their planned display of Enola Gay (the first US plane to drop atomic bombs on Japan) was ‘reduced’ due to political pressure not to reflect unfavourably on military technologies and the extreme civilian deaths they caused. Such decisions patronise the viewing public as well as compromise the intellectual rigour of the institution. Having one’s imagination ignited by the space missions in a museum is not adversely affected by acknowledging the horrors of war – the human mind is built for complexity. The dominant tendency to mistake the need for coherence for a oversimplification of ideas, values and actions fundamentally undermines people’s wonderful capacity for understanding complex ideas on lots of different levels.

Back within the bio-sphere, it’s worth remembering how truly significant our values and actions are. As Taking Liberties makes clear, our rights and freedoms are made up of small steps for man, and huge leaps for mankind.

British Library 'Taking Liberties' exhibition banner

Centre image: Laws of Forests, 1225 Copyright © The British Library Board

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O Brother: The Coen Brothers target the coal industry

In the month that James Hansen asked for a total moratorium on coal-burning, the Coen Brothers have completed their first advert for The Reality Coalition , a campaign targeting the US coal industry. The coal-based energy industry is one of world’s most significant producers of greenhouse gasses. The Coen’s mock the coal industry’s as yet unproven claims that it can produce “clean coal” power through carbon capture – the untried technology to be used at the new Kingsnorth power station planned by EON. “Clean coal,” goes the ad’s slogan cynically, “harnesses the awesome power of the word ‘clean‘.”


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