Heroes? Not really, according to them. They do what we all could do, what we all should maybe do: to denounce, inform, express ourselves, find our spaces, make our voice being heard (especially when who should be representing us, does not actually do it at all) and yet defend freedom, enjoy ourselves, try to be fine and take charge of the consequences of our lifestyle over human kind and the environment. Without being afraid, without being submissive, get what is ours, in a creative way, in a cultuerd, artistic way.
We ought to implement art in our everyday lifestyle , as a mean of information (more properly, of counter-information) and research: art as action, as interpretation of reality, also when this one appears to be greater than us. Key word: integrity. Let’s banish greed and consumption, money and homologation. Let’s start seeking a more authentic dimension, a more sustainable reality.
Here is the message from the participants of the 2010 edition of The Influencers festival, a project by Bani Brusadin, Eva Mattes and Franco Mattes (a.k.a. 0100101110101101.ORG). Having by now reached its sixth edition, The Influencers is one of the most interesting and groundbreaking events in Barcellona’s cultural landscape, especially for its capability of superbly conjugating entertainment with commitment, laughter with cleverness.
We are hoping that what is being sold to us as “crisis”, which keeps pruning (if not even mowing down) particularly the cultural sphere/field/domain, will not get to damage this one festival also, this eagerly awaited appointment, that was able to convey a vast group on international followers in the Catalan capital. However, let’s now get to the 2010 edition’s agenda, presenting by all means some exceptional guests.
James Acord, for instance; elderly yet elegant man, bizarre azure hair and penetrating gaze. His work has always been characterized by the search of a close relation with the actual world, using stone in the very same way in which bones and marrow operate in in living beings. In fact, at a certain point of his artistic maturation path, Acord decides to work with granite, tough and corrosive. In times of considerable urbanization and pollution, granite represented for Acord the ideal matter to communicate his ideas.
The thing about granite that has always intrigued him is the fact that it does contain a high concentration of Uranium. Uranium is a rather radioactive as well as poisonous element. In order to make it safer, Acord began to insert it in his sculptures, after having derived it from ceramic dishes manufactured in the 1920s and ’30s. Before Second World War and before USA nuclear industry researches, this element was as a matter of fact used in decorative Arts, to confer an orange tone to ceramic and glass.
After having moved to Hanford, – where the core of USA nuclear industry is based and what’s more, site where the reactors that produced the Plutonium for the nuclear bombs dropped over Japan are built- he started studying nuclear substances and consulting experts, trying to figure out how to apply the nuclear process in sculpture. Through his researches, Acord was eager to find the way to enhance Art’s role as mean for the understanding of society.
He ended up teaching History of Art to nuclear engineers, in order to make them acknowledge that art and science are parallel routes, both heading towards truth and compassion. He in the meanwhile realized that the actual secret of the nuclear era was the possibility to convert a substance into another: a dream that has accompanied men since Ancient Greece. Then was when his long and complex path for getting nuclear matter and obtaining the permission to use a reactor for creating his sculptures began.
Needless to say that he has had to face difficulties and refuses, even though at last he managed to legally own a ton of Uranium, being documenting all this adventure through a number of lectures and exhibitions.
James Acord story was indeed tricky as well as unique, although he hasn’t been the only artist who turned his interest to scientific issues with the aim of making them more understandable and transparent. Another notable example is embodied/represented by the Critical Art Ensemble group. This cluster of worldwide well-known artists, of whom so much has been written and said, is operating since 1986.
Through these years, the Critical Art Ensemble group was the author of a number of famous actions of denounce, concerning various themes, all of which are documented in extremely interesting books which can easily be downloaded from the group’s website without any charging. Crucial topics as DNA manipulation and bacteriological wars are approached , as well as the issue of transgenic cultivations, which puts genetically modified food on our tables without any consent from us whatsoever.
Critical Art Ensemble‘s actions are aimed to inform people through workshops and to highlight the nonsense laying in governmental authorities’ investments through actions made in public places. It is easy to perceive how hazardous this kind of art is, especially in an epoch in which noone is able to mark the boundary between what is legal and what is not, anymore. And Steve Kurtz, CAE co-founder of the group is well-aware of this.
His case did cause big sensation among media and has become renowned even beyond Art environment boundaries: Kurtz has been in fact accused of bioterroristic activities, when FBI accidentally discovered his artistic laboratory inside his house. The whole story, as it is reported in Lynn’s Hershman Leeson’s film Strange Culture, made Kurtz able to obtain the essential moral and economic support from the international Art community and hence to positively conclude the tough situation he was in.
Another very famous and greatly active in practicing tactical media group we had the pleasure to meet at The Influencers was The Yes Men. They are also hugely well-known by a public which is now larger than the restricted artworld one; Andy Bichlbaum e Mike Bonanno, aka The Yes Men take the place of companies’ and international organizations’ spokesmen in an utterly funny and ironical way, aiming to put in act their dreams of justice and respect towards human kind and environment.
An example: after several years of waiting, hiding behind a fake website they created, they were invited by BBC as representatives from Dow Chemical Company, which after having purchased Union Carbide still kept to not to take its responsibilities of the Bhopal disaster in India, an environmental catastrophe for which no-one has payed yet, neither economically nor legally and that still keeps reaping victims, since the area hasn’t been drained and reclaimed yet.
Then suddenly, the fake Dow Chemicals’ spokesmen publicly apologize on television and promise the company will pay for the damages: as a consequence of this, company’s shares slump, until the prompt denial from Dow Chemicals arrives and the action is unmasked. During our meeting, the Yes Men told us that at the beginning of their activity, they have often experienced their actions as they were being failures, although maintaining the usual irony in enacting them.
For instance when they organized a conference during which they presented a very advantageous strategy for companies that though would be life-threatening for people in poor countries; instead of causing public outrage, they had been approached by many businessmen that were highly interested in the project and agreed with the kind of philosophy presented.
A similar action was the one they put up against Washington Chamber of Commerce. This was an already vulnerable target to hit since, as a consequence of its position on climate change, many were threatening to leave (or had yet left) the organization. The Yes Men organized a fake press conference, they rented a hall and sent a notification to journalists stating that the Chamber of Commerce had changed its standpoint on the matter: the legislation on Co2 emission the congress was forthbringing would be approved and there would even be a tax being put on them (so it would have even been a more radical standpoint compared to what the congress was trying to do).
When one of the journalists, who had misunderstood the place in which the conference had to be, arrived at the Chamber of Commerce headquarter, the PR grasped what was happening and ran to the conference where a ludicrous battle for who was the actual representative of the company began. The Chamber of Commerce did obviously sew the artists, the trial is currently going on: this is not considered from them as a problem though, since their actions are aimed to be acts of denounce, wiling to put the actual truth on evidence.
This is the same reason for which they attacked other companies, they realized and are willing to keep realizing films, -for instance The Yes Men fix the world, which has been shown during the festival-. Among their actions there has also been the printing of some fake editions of “The New York Times” only containing positive news about the ending of the Iraq war, that have been then distributed for free. Dreams and hopes that may one day come true.
From denouncing companies and businesses inadmissible behaviors, we shift to decrying the control marketing tries to wield over us and our consuming ways. On the frontline, parisian street artist Zevs, who began his activity in Paris suburbs during the 90s, making use of the red color and climbing walls seeking clear spaces to paint on, in a city already saturated with graffiti. His prime source of inspiration is the urban space, dominated by images among which communication societies logos stand out everywhere.
Zevs developed a distinctive style studying them, going from using inflammable painting in first place, to subsequently paint shadows’ silhouettes (benches, streetlamps and even sleeping tramps), using the very same paint that is used to make zebra crossings, to paint the outlines. During the day shadows disappear; in this way though, their contours, the memory of them remains. Being acting unauthorized, he used to go around disguised in a yellow working suit, that immediately became a second skin for him.
He also used to wear a mask in order to put distance between himself and his works and actions, as well as to give life to a character constituting a performative element by itself. Moreover, the mask has always allowed him to remain anonymous, turning him into a featureless superhero people could project their own image on. Even so, after being arrested in Hong Kong, Zevs is no longer anonymous and does not wear his mask anymore.
At the same time, Zevs also began attacking models on streetposters, perforating them with holes that looked like gunshots or breaching the paper to then spill red paint through the cuts as if it was blood. The posters were generally replaced after very short times; but one night he himself climbed the scaffoldings of Centre Pompidou in Paris willing to “kill” Hitchcock’s image. From that day on, during the entire period of the exhibition, Centre Pompidou kept Zevs’ artwork “exhibited” as well.
Since working in the streets had become extremely difficult for him lately, he toke the decision to transform his style into something new. In 2002 he went to Berlin and performed his famous “visual kidnapping”: he cut out a model of a gigantic Lavazza-poster (12 meters) in Alexanderplatz, requesting a 500.000 euros ransom, figure that was representative of the average budget companies assign to advertising campaigns. During the three years period this project went on, a number of actions has been made (among which the sales of 1€ tickets to watch the ‘execution’, in case Lavazza would not pay the ransom) that ended up with the ransom being payed and donated to the Palais de Tokyo.
The liquidated logos is a series of Zevs’ works that has become greatly famed. One of these was the Chanel logo, painted by Zevs on the outer wall of a Giorgio Armani boutique in central Hong Kong, not a very likely place for street art indeed. In this occasion Zevs was arrested and had to wait there for one month longing for a verdict that luckily did not end up coinciding with the counterpart’s requests, namely the commitment of rebuilding the entire facade asking for a nonsensical sum.
And this would not had been appropriate at all, acknowledging that the artist’s love for playing with ephemeral, creating as well as making disappear his artworks, implicates working only using washable paints. His “proper graffiti” are a prove of this attitude: he draws on dirty walls with a high pressure jet, removing layers of accumulating dirt and smog. One night during the festival, Zevs did decorate Barcelona, replacing with his drawings some images in backlit ad posters.
The Influencers 2010 furthermore presented another manipulator of less public though certainly more virtual spaces, namely Joan Leandre. Leandre started introducing himself in videogames world not as mere user but as code manipulator, transforming the digital entertaining products. One of his first interventions in this sense has been to alter gravity parameters in a auto TT videogame so that cars could race over all the superficies of the digital environment, including walls. He has afterwards being intervening on more parameters, distorting the graphics through surrealist representations that had nothing to do with the actual game.
He hence began tackling the theme of violence in videogames, inserting virtual graffiti showing pacifist contents in online games: wandering around virtual environments, unaware users could come across those symbols of peace as if they were a true component of the game environment. Many users have had outraged and threatening reactions towards this operation, causing the decision from the artist to stop interfering with other people and to go back working in a more intimate way.
In the second phase of his artistic development, Leandre he has been operating on the games making characters disappear from virtual environments, allowing the player to wander around in that emptiness with no other aim than exploring the surroundings. The artist has also been experimenting the creation end the editing of short videos completely plotless but nevertheless filled up with various symbolisms, which were obtained by picking up a number of previously manipulated sceneries that were then being mixed with other ones.
Later times editings, instead, present selections of images picked from war games, from which Leandre exclusively chose the ones with plants, that once reassembled by him, were able to create the sensation of being immersed in the flawless, humansless peace of some nature landscapes.
With their lighter attitude and thrilling, jokey performances, the Black Label Bike Club have cheered up the festival. The group formed in USA in 1992, presents itself in a Hell’s Angels motorclub style, using typical gilets, old beer-stained clothes damaged by all the accidents they’d had, with the detail of wearing baseball caps instead of proper helmets.
Take a bike’s main body and cut it in two. Put the parts together but in reverse, assemble them with a cart wheel on the back and a stroller one on the front, then weld the pedal structure to head’s height and the saddle so as it is touching the ground-. This could be one of the hundreds of bikes that this group creates through old bicycles and other objects recycling. Two-leves bikes, massive or very small, having shoes or hammers instead of wheels.Black Label Bike Club build whatever kind of bikes, as long as they are proved to be suitable for being used.
This being nonetheless only the first phase of the process, concerning the making of the bike. The second phase consisting in having fun with these bikes, along with indispensable large amounts of beer. Their gatherings with others “bike-clubs” (all of them having in common a true passion for cycling as well as a true repulsion for cars culture) consist in coast to coast crossings of the US, unfailingly turning into parties during which many activities are organized: bike-costumizing labs are set up, medieval, King Arthur-style tournaments fought using safety-covered lances, marathons during which racers must drink six cans taped together while they’re driving, high hurdles consisting in walking across damp old mattresses filled with feces and rotten stuff without falling. Music and alcohol are staple elements of all their parties as well as police turns out to be, every single time
Sometimes their actions present political features, like when they publicly destroyed a large portrait of George Bush, and sometimes features are more artistic oriented, as when they summon artists to complement the works adding sculpture elements to scenographies; still, above all, the aim in these happenings is to give participants the possibility of behaving in such a way they wouldn’t normally do. In the festival environment, the group organized a three-days workshop opened to anyone willing to build himself a new bicycle or just to modify the one they have already; the group then also invited people to take part to one of their most audacious “Bike kill”, in park of Barcelona.
Ultimately, there also is who gives proof of boldness through more understated methods, intimate and meditative, abandoning for instance all the comforts and beginning traveling, walking with a donkey as only companion in the middle of nowhere, seeking the inner forgotten nature of living beings. We are talking about Christian Bettini aka P.ankh, leading figure of Donkijote, a project recently produced by Gijón LABoral.
We had the pleasure of talking with Christian, although we will put this back for the moment saving it for a monographic article in the next Digimag issue. Readers interested in the project and curious to know more about it can have a look at Christian’s travel diaries on the related website, http://donkijote.org