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THE ANGEL OF HISTORY
by Dominique Moulon [ March 2010 ]
According to Benjamin Weil, the principal curator of Laboral, the Feedforward exhibition is just a “sequel” to Feedback, the inaugural exhibition of the Centre for Art and Industrial Creation in Gijon, Spain. Its organisation was entrusted to Christiane Paul, one of the curators of the Whitney Museum in New York, and to Steve Dietz, the artistic director of the Zero1 biennale of San José, California. The exhibition’s subtitle, “The Angel of History” is making a reference to an essay by Walter Benjamin.

spacerThe aesthetics of simulation

Last Riot


AES+F,
“Last Riot”,
2007.
spacerEverything in the Russian collective AES+F’s, “Last Riot” is just simulation. Mountains and rocks in the distance as well as in the foreground are idealised as in the paintings of the Italian artist Andrea Mantegna. The rocket fuselages, the planes and missiles are smooth like the surfaces of 3D models before they receive their textures. The actors are young and beautiful like they are in fashion photography. No emotion will appear on their faces even though they incessantly play and replay scenes of execution with knives and swords in their hands. There is neither sweat, nor blood in this ideal world where rocket missiles and imminent crashes of planes in distress give away the end. Such a display, of advertising style beauty placed in a museum setting is a little disturbing even if in this particular case it’s “make-believe” as children say when playing war, unlike those who make war for real. As for weapons of mass destruction, they too have their presentation leaflets.

spacerThe art of informing

Tantalum Memorial



Harwood, Wright & Yokokoji,
“Tantalum Memorial - Residue”,
2008.
spacerTantalum Memorial - Residue” is part of a series of installations conceived by the artists Graham Harwood, Richard Wright and Matsuko Yokokoji that is structured around antiquated automatic telephone switches. The one that is presented at Laboral is imposing for its size and the appearance of its old-fashioned electronic components, which give it a very mysterious look. As for its title, it refers to the ore known as Coltan that contains two minerals, called respectively Colombite and Tantalite. These same minerals are used in making cell phones and video game consoles. But 80% of the world’s Coltan reserves, which has recently become precious, are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where conflicts that are referred to as the Coltan Wars have been raging for the past few years; conflicts that have already claimed nearly four million lives in the face of the international media’s complete indifference. The Gijon Centre for Art, following the festivals of Zero1 in San José, Transmediale in Berlin and Ars Electronica in Linz, is creating an echo of the massacres in which we are participating, without even knowing it, in our unbridled use of cell phones.

spacerAuto surveillance

Tracking Transience


Hasan Elahi,
“Tracking Transience”,
2009.
spacerHasan Elahi was arrested by FBI agents in 2002 at the Detroit airport and only after a lengthy series of lie detector tests did they learn that the artist was absolutely beyond reproach. He then decided to inform the agent who had given him his telephone number where he was going before each of his trips. Hasan Elahi is highly solicited around the world, notably to touch on the site “trackingtransience.net” that he created in 2004 to avoid a repeat of such unpleasantness. This website makes it possible to know, in real time, where he is via Google Earth. The little arrow tells us where he is located at any given moment, while his travels are documented by numerous photos accompanied by textual information. We know, for example, what he ate aboard a Boeing 777 on Continental Airlines going from the Tokyo Narita airport to Newark and learn that he spent 2 dollars and 87 cents in a Starbucks Coffee in New York on April 15th 2008. This art oriented auto surveillance makes us think about the digital traces that we leave behind each one of our steps. It’s a very short jump for them to be processed in a crosschecking bureau like the one in the 1985 film Brazil by Terry Gillian where an arrest is also made, by mistake…

spacerRevealing the distance

Limit Telephotography



Trevor Paglen,
“Limit Telephotography”,
2005.
spacerTrevor Paglen is a research artist in cultural geography who recently published a book entitled “Blank Spots on the Map”. He is interested in the zones that are kept secret on American soil, such as the military base located in the celebrated Area 51 that has inspired so many authors and screen writers. He practices what he calls, “Limit Telephotography” by using material that is used by astronomers. It is with cameras equipped with telephoto lenses with focal lengths that can reach up to 7,000 mm that Trevor Paglen photographs what is happening from afar. Quite a few of his images are therefore blurred with rather faded colours like the landscapes in the backgrounds of paintings. The contours of the hangars that we can make out in one of the photos taken from a distance of 18 miles, about 29 kilometres, are indistinct, like they are in some of Gerhard Richter’s paintings. Trevor Paglen’s images reveal the thick layer of ether that separates the lens from the subject itself. They represent nothing other than the distance induced by what is kept secret.

spacerImmersive journalism

Limit Telephotography


Nonny de la Pena
& Peggy Weil,
“Gone Gitmo”, 2007.
spacerIt is now possible to visit the prisoner camp of Guantanamo virtually before Barack Obama, who promised to close it in 2008, shuts it down definitively. The project is called ”Gone Gitmo” and was conceived by Nonny de la Pena and Peggy Weil. One can thus wander about freely in Second Life, within the Delta and X-Ray camps reconstituted in 3D. You can even put on an orange prison outfit when an agent is available to get more into the role and follow a pre-scripted scenario where torture, happily, is excluded. This is what the two artists call “immersive journalism”. But are we ready to incarnate a prisoner in this context in the manner we do in projecting ourselves into a fictive character, not to mention the issues tied to international rights or simply to human rights this prison raises, knowing that video game players are more inclined to choose the role of a terrorist rather than a counter terrorist?

spacerPersonal diaries

Hello World



Christopher Baker,
“Hello World”, 2008.
spacerDiaries in which one would write “Dear Diary” at the top of the page and whose contents one would protect with the help of little locks are fading out. As for videoblogs that openly address the entire world by beginning with “Hello World”, they are on the rise. It is for this reason that Christopher Baker has brought together a few thousand in order to broadcast them simultaneously within a video installation called ”Hello World”. Though these sequences are relatively uninteresting individually, their multiplication gives birth to a strange audiovisual cacophony. The repetition of an object, whatever it is, generally removes it from its tedious banality. But the American artist is implementing a reversal through this accumulation because those who think they are addressing the entire world from the intimacy of their bedrooms now find themselves immersed in a crowd of people while a single spectator can be situated in the place of the camera.

spacerArrogance or provocation

Smoke and hot air



Ali Momeni
& Robin Mandel,
“Smoke and hot air”,
2007 / 2008.
spacerAli Momeni, who was born in Isfahan in Iran and currently teaches at the University of Minnesota, considers his installation “Smoke and Hot Air” to be a “response to the relentless threats against Iran by a myriad of more fortunate countries in recent years”. Momeni got together with Robin Mandel to conceive a strange machine that makes real smoke rings whenever it finds phrases that include “Attack Iran” on Google News. These same phrases are then automatically converted to Text-To-Speech with a software application while the material part of the machine translates them into smoke rings. The room where the work is exposed is filled with thick smoke while the noise of the machine’s wooden valves struggle to cover the synthetic voice that is spouting threats. But what kind of arrogance does this machine symbolise? That of presidents of western countries who are failing to govern the world or that of another president whose favourite arm is nothing more than provocation?

spacerThe Angel of History

Labor Camp Study Room D


Piotr Szyhalski,
“Labor Camp Study Room D”,
2009.
spacerLastly, “Labour Camp Study Room D”, by the artist Piotr Szyhalski, brings together four metallic panels equipped with vu-metres, switches and other tuning buttons and headsets. Spectators can manipulate these interfaces with their old fashioned beauty to listen to sound archives that range from WW2 to the war in Iraq. Control here though is only an illusion because it soon becomes apparent that it is the machine that “decides”. But the piece is indeed about history as is this exhibition where the catalogue begins with a few lines taken from Walter Benjamin’s "On the Concept of History": “A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Written by Dominique Moulon for "Images Magazine" and translated by Geoffrey Finch for "newmediaart.eu", this article is also available in French on "nouveauxmedias.net".