Silvestre Pestana’s retrospective ‘Tecnoforma’ at Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art – Porto, Portugal

‘Technoforma’ takes visitors on an engaging interrogation of the relationship between technology and the body. For myself it was a beautiful and poetic retrospective introduction to an artist in his 5th decade of activism, generally unknown outside of Portugal. Consisting of a dynamic and diverse practice with works ranging from collages, film to installation and sculpture, I feel a little out of my depths attempting to talk about an artist as intelligent as Pestana, so please forgive me if this writing does not do his work justice.

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Installation view of ‘Tecnoforma'(2016) – (‘The invisible worker’ can be seen in action)

With most of the works having been made 30-50 years ago it is astounding how relevant their ideas remain in the Internet age of today. The political and social focus of the changing relationship between the body and technology echoes ideas presented in works and writings by internationally acclaimed artist Nam June Paik, which leaves Pestana’s worldwide anonymity a bit of a mystery.

This focus on the relationship between technology and the body was showcased quite brilliantly in the recently realised kinetic work: ‘The invisible worker’ (2016). This consisted of several small, circular robots whirring around the gallery, moving at a speed much faster than the average human pace. These domestic robots chased and tripped the audience, creating a tension between annoyance and humour, but most importantly they reminded us of the precarious nature of contemporary work.

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Installation view of ‘Tecnoforma’ (2016) – (‘The invisible worker’ can be seen stationary)

Earlier works focused predominantly on Pestana’s ‘Biovirtual’ (1981-1987) series made in the 80’s, with black and white images of the artist contrasted with white neon lights dominating the last room of the exhibition. These works present a very literal contrast between the organic organism of the body and the industrial materials of technology.

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‘Biovirtual’ works (1981-1987)

‘Necro Eco Pietá’, (1979) a photographic series of 10 images near the end of the exhibition also uses the form of contrast to interrogate the modern human’s relationship with death. This is one of the most striking works of photography I have ever seen and living in a world of over abundant imagery this is quite a triumph. Beautifully composed, the artist holds a skeleton against his body along with the props of a gas mask and a cigarette. The symbolism in this series for me represents the ridiculous-ness of the life we have made for ourselves; the protection we will one day need from the environment that created us and the self inflicting damage caused by addiction, bringing us closer to our death whilst bringing others into a monetary profit…but only in this life.

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1/10 of the series ‘Necro Eco Pieta” (1979)

 

The most interesting thing I found in this exhibition was the emphasis on the body, the performative side of the art and the presence of the artist himself in many of the works. It started making me think about how the body is the one thing that we don’t have to pay for, but it is the only thing that we truly own, and our physical organism is a constant reminder of how unnatural trade is as this process of ownership does not involve a single transaction.

Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick at Somerset House

The first time I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odyssey (1968) was at a screening held by the BFI in late 2014. On the walk back to Waterloo station my friend (a long-standing and dedicated Kubrick fan) turned to me and asked me what I had thought of the experience. I simply had no answer. Unable to get my feeble human mind around the scope of what I had just seen, I was in a state of awe and confusion. Even now, after a number of re watches, the consumption of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series and several YouTube videos explaining camera techniques, I still feel inadequate to answer that question without doing the masterpiece that is 2001 a gross injustice. What I have not been able to stop asking since that day is; how can one mind conceive such a monumental idea and even more so, put it into an accessible experience? Inspired in my own practice by Kubrick’s breadth of curiosity, ideas and styles I went to Somerset House’s ‘Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick’ exhibition to see how established artists have been influenced by one man’s mind.

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I was firstly pleased to find that this was indeed not a show of sourced film props and camera equipment as so many exhibitions for anyone related to film often are. Unfortunately though the work on display varied from brilliant artistic conceptions to some rather poor and confusing works, with no real in-between. Despite this the successful works were (almost) worth the visit alone. Starting with Mat Collishaws’ isolated ‘A Ω’ (2016) which manages to condense the entirety of 2001: A Space Odyssey into a single object, gave me hope for the quality of works ahead.

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  ‘A Ω’ (2016) – Mat Collishaw

Just around the corner I was not yet disappointed being faced with; ‘Requiem for 114 radios’ (2016) by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. If it had not been for the other visitors it would have been all too easy to convince my self that I was in a real life horror story, stumbling across a room filled with a suspicious amount of radios that all suddenly come to life in the middle of the night, like something from The Shining (1980). Leaning closer to individual radio sets the viewer will notice that each one has a different voice of varying pitch and tone contributing to the recital of ‘Dias Irae’, echoing that famous scene from Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The disembodied choir and dimly lit room manipulate the senses until the rooms’ eerie qualities become unbearably similar to Hal’s last moments in 2001, robotic yet somehow pathetically quivering; ‘Daisy, Daisy…’

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‘Requiem for 114 Radios’ (2016) – Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard

Up there with ‘Requiem for 114 radios’ was Toby Dye’s installation ‘The Corridor’ (2016). The small dark room of the installation provided a contrast against the sparse white walls of the hospital on which the panoramic action takes place. The life size projections of characters and events allows viewers to become totally immersed in the narrative but the constant motion of the camera prohibits us from ever feeling present within it. Yet the audience finds themselves in the invisible centre of this interweaving, 4 dimensional story that rolls on infinitely. There is a lot to be said for the sound design on this work as well, not only was the score (‘Lonely Soul’ provided by James Lavelle’s ‘UNKLE’) a perfect fit, but the synchronisation of folio sounds kept you constantly on your toes, looking from screen to screen.

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‘The corridor’ (2016) – Toby Dye

Aside from these worthy homages, it did feel that there were many works that were painfully pointless. These were works that focused on elevating Kubrick to a god-like status rather than reflecting on his works. The most extreme examples of this was Chris Levine’s impressive but simultaneously ludicrous ‘Mr. Kubrick is Looking’ (2016), in which an LED light contains the visual information of a self portrait of Stanley Kubrick, so when looked at out of peripheral vision it momentarily flashes into sight. Another was Mark Karasick’s ‘SK1928’ (2016) an installation consisting of 220 paper sheets pieced together to form a painted image of Kubrick as a quite uncomfortable looking baby. The marble inscription underneath reading; ‘The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent…’ along with the eerily anonymous type writer noise makes you feel like you’re being forced into mournful tears, and it’s just a bit weird.

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‘Mr. Kubrick is looking’ (2016) – Chris Levine

My expectation of this exhibition was to follow lines of influence from Kubrick into all variations of artistic practice and following that, into society. But instead it felt that this exhibition was generally homage to the man rather than to the work. Suspiciously the majority of the works were dated as made in 2016, giving the impression that these works had not been previously realised by the artists until they received a brief from the curator. This then, made the exhibition feel more like fan art made by big names, rather than a genuine showcase of Kubrick’s influence.

BlueDot Festival – A Reflection

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In July of 2016 I had what may be described as an out of this world experience. The story starts with simple, average expectations of a weekend away with friends working (through a company called Festaff, if you are a live music lover and of little means, I would highly recommend) at a brand new music-meets-science festival at Jordell bank, Cheshire. I had nothing to base my expectations on apart from the large commercial festivals I have attended previously, so what I was not expecting was the mind-expanding transformation that I received in those 3 days.

The first sprinkling of magic occurred when we were delegated our shifts for the weekend and were faced with a choice; a 16 hour shift in a car park from 10am till 1am, or, 3 x 5 hour shifts, one on each day, inside the ‘Luminarium’; an art installation. Tempting as it was to spend the best part of the Earth’s daily rotation standing in a field in a high-vis jacket periodically waving our arms around to direct fellow sweaty festival goers to a campsite, we chose the magic for ourselves and went with the daily shifts at the Luminarium. And how could we have been so lucky as to make such a choice without really knowing what we were choosing?13654322_10210008134260242_8527097354821993962_n

On my first expedition into ‘Katena’, the inflatable alien sculpture designed by Alan Parkinson and conceived by Architects of Air, I felt a lump in my chest that crawled up into my throat and drew tears from my eyes. I was moved, by sunlight hitting plastic. ‘A sanctuary of the senses’ with its turrets and its mutations, its brightness and its darkness, a dome of triangular stars burning just out of reach and endless variations of colours kissing your skin, the experience of a Luminarium is simply beyond words as it is so deeply rooted within raw emotion. Senses ecstatic, imaginations run wild, adults become children and children find a horizon of infinite joy and pleasure.26292745523_4fe52aa647_b1

Possibly the most beautiful part of working at the Luminarium was being able to see a public of all ages and backgrounds react to this magnificent environment. Standing on the other side of the airlock was one of the most wonderful jobs a human could ask for, holding the door open to unleash unsuspecting visitors into a new dimension of experience, each individual becomes a blank canvas, overcome by uncensored visceral emotion and wonder their pupils dilate and their heads tilt back so they can attempt to absorb the beast of incomprehension that surrounds them. This was a place where people could be together without words, without selfies, without ego. Of course, children ran and squealed, couples Publically Displayed their Affection and some were insistent on treating the delicately hand stitched walls as a slide, but one thing was true for every single human being that entered Katena, they were experiencing sensory freedom.

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Beyond the Luminarium there was still infinitely more phenomenon to be explored. The surface of the iconic Lovell telescope, a marvel of architecture, scientific purpose and human will power was used as a backdrop for a projection installation by Brian Eno. Similar to his ‘77 million paintings’ the installation consisted of ever changing textures and colours, this could be seen from any location at the festival, always looking spectacularly different. Most importantly it could be seen from the main stage, so whilst watching Karl Hyde’s energetic performance during Underworld’s set, or Jean Michel-Jarre play music by manipulating laser beams with gloved hands or even smaller bands such as Manchesters ‘Henge’ chanting about demilitarisation and the colonization of space, the Lovell telescope still stood, gloriously morphing, evolving just like our tiny little minds, unaware of the whole that we exist within on this tiny little blue dot surrounded by infinite mystery.

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I have not even gone into detail about the installations that covered the arboretum that continued on well into the night, creating a surreal place for people to meet and talk into the small hours of the morning. I cannot present within the limitations of words the sense of community that was created over those few days and the people we met and the things we saw. The whole experience of this weekend left me astounded by the power of human curiosity. From the musicians to the scientists, organisers to artists, the achievement of bringing humanity together to explore the primal curiosities of the unknown was rife. The realisation for me was that this is what I want to be a part of, I no longer have the desire to contribute to galleries where art is locked up in white cells. It is places like this; with people like this where things can really take place and change can begin to form in the outside world. Take all the ‘art’ out of galleries and turn them into venues that people can use so that things can finally start happening again. I fell in love with life and experience, I felt real hope for the environment and humanity and a calmness and determination I had never faced before, and finally I was brutally awaked from this idyllic utopia as I read the discarded newspapers on my train journey home.

140 per minute; Rave Culture and Art in 1990’s Poland – at Open’r music festival, Gdynia, Poland.

Referring to the beats in classic techno dance music belonging to 90’s cyber culture, this exhibition explores the relationship between politics, technology and art at the end of the 20th century. In his book ‘After the Future’ (2011) Italian theorist Franco Beradi (Bifo) refers to the 1900’s as ‘the century that trusted in the future’, but notes the negative shift in this belief starting in the final decades of the 20th century, ending with cyber culture in the 1990’s. Bifo describes cyber culture as a new type of utopia, one that differs from the utopia of progression and expansion imagined by the rest of the century;

“The Net is the utopia of an infinite, virtual space where countless trajectories of billions of intelligent agents meet and create their economic, cultural, and psychic reality.”

This too, reflects rave culture also taking place in 1990’s Poland where electronic music parties;

“began to appear in Poland together with the political system change in the early 90s, often voicing the naive, but nonetheless authentic optimism of opening up to the world, its civilizational and technological advancement.”

Bifo believes that the previously imagined utopia’s, so focused on economic and special growth, have caused the inevitability of environmental catastrophe, and pre empting it; our modern obsession with dystopia. This is embodied in the work of Janek Simon, whose work ‘Robot VJ mixing channels 1 and 2’ was included in the ‘140 beats per minute exhibition’. Simon’s practice strives for autonomy from our commodity dependant civilisation with works such as ‘Home made digital watch’ (2005), as well as works which physically predict the apocalypse such as ‘Slight Earth quake’ (2004) (a shaking glass of water) reflecting the importance of our own preparation for the end of the future.

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View of the “140 beats per minute” exhibition, photo: Bartosz Stawiarski   

Perhaps most efficient at transforming the viewer into the visual dimension of the 1990’s were the spatial installations by Andrzej Miastkowski; ‘That which appears everyday and makes itself’ (1997) and Piotr Wryzykowski; ‘Global Social Organism’ (1996). The first of which consisted of a black-lit room with walls decorated with small fragments of neon yellow, surrounding an intricately adorned shrine in the centre of the room. The added element of sound, a soothingly hypnotic pulse, (which was unfortunately rather drowned out by the wailings of Bastille taking place on the main stage at the time of my exhibition exploration) created a juxtaposition between the senses, a tension that mimics that of the 90’s rave culture; both stimulating and soothing, a comfort and a threat.

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Andrzej Miastkowski, Wspólnota Leeeżeć, “To, co widnieje każdego dnia i czyni się samo”, 1997, photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

Wryzykowski’s installation consisted of a spinning disco ball in the centre of a black room, the lights of which reached into every corner of the installation. Considering the admirable number of Wryzykowski’s artistic and politically active successes, I feel as though this was a rather bland representation of a truly inspiring artist.

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Piotr Wyrzykowski “Globalny Społeczny Organizm”, 1996, photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

Fortunately Wryzykowski’s greater achievements were showcased in ‘Test na Cyborga’ (Cyborg Test) (1996) by C.U.K.T, the Polish art collective he co-founded in 1995. This piece was the personal highlight of the exhibition for me, a documentation of a happening performed by both the collective and the general public. C.U.K.T set up raves open to everyone willing to exchange information about their weight and size of their body, they then had a number relating to this information branded onto their left hand with permanent marker, and had this hand photocopied. A selection of these photocopies were shown alongside the contract filled out by the rave goer and three screens documenting this process. For me, this trade between experience and personal information predicts and reflects the workings of modern social media, and poses the question; why do we perceive things as ‘free’ only if we are not exchanging money for it. With further research into this collective and their activism, (in particular their creation of Wictoria Cukt, a virtual presidential candidate for the 2001 Polish election that had the potential to electrically embody all of the views of all of the people using the infinite space of the internet), I realised that this collective’s core beliefs are in fact very close to my own. Their anti-institutional attitude puts life at the forefront of activity, not art, something I believe is sorely missing from the practices that surround me in 2016 Britain.

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C.U.K.T, “Test na cyborga” (fragment), Warsaw, Zielona Góra, Düsseldorf, 1995, photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

In all, this exhibition remained faithful to the works on display, being confined to their specific timescale was vital for the audience to understand the anthropological significance of the works, which I sometimes feel can be lost with decade specific exhibitions. The midst of Poland’s biggest music festival was the perfect setting for this educational exhibition, although afterwards I would have been quite partial to a bit of hard core techno music, of which was lacking at the festival as Bastille was STILL playing, so in a way this exhibition commented on it’s location itself – the commercialized world of music. Ultimately the selection of works on show walked me through the setting of 90’s culture that I had read about in ‘After the Future’, visually demonstrating those feelings of scepticism and celebration prior to Y2K.