“All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.”- Dan Graham
Claire Bishop chose this provocative statement to begin her 2012 book “Artificial Hells” that significantly influenced the development of this exhibition. And almost at exactly the same time this was getting underway, Lourdes Fernández, newly-appointed director of the Alhóndiga Bilbao that had just gotten a makeover from Philippe Starck, paid a visit to Linz for some brainstorming about that cultural institution’s first collaborative projects with the Ars Electronica Center. The initial outcome of this get-together and a simultaneous year-long process of dealing with this topic is “Artists as Catalysts,” the exhibition that opened on July 4th at Alhóndiga Bilbao and will run there until September 8th.
Admittedly, it is by no means a startlingly new insight that artistic processes and works exert a catalytic influence on those who behold them. And for over 100 years now, artists have been “dis-closing” works of art and opening them up to participation by so-called non-artists. This is a form of cooperation that does not exclusively entail assessment of and interaction with the finished work; it already commences in the process of fashioning the work itself. And this is also an artistic opening up to reflect the issues of this day and age, and to raise matters of social and political importance, whereby heightened social as well as political interest is what moves artists and inspires reactions in the form of their works. The upshot of all these facts and circumstances is that art increasingly emerges beyond the realm of formal artistic institutions and insinuates itself directly into people’s everyday lives.
As to the specifics of the exhibition’s title, “Artists as Catalysts” refers to those artists who have courageously opened up their artistic process and confronted issues and human beings in order to subject themselves and their audiences to ongoing transformation. Catalysts implement processes, accelerate them without thereby ceasing to exist in their own right. This description of the nature and function of catalysts also highlights an important attribute of the exhibited works: the artistic process. The space at the very beginning of the exhibition already makes it obvious that this show is about the artists themselves. Right from the start, a presentation setting conceived especially for this purpose introduces the artists, elaborates on their thinking, mode of working, and everyday life, and provides information about how the works of art, installations and artifacts on display came about. It’s not until visitors continue on their way that they’re confronted by these artists’ works.
The exhibition is subdivided into three focal-point themes: Environment and Sustainable Future; Control and Manipulation of our Mediatized World; and Find Your Voice and Express Yourself. The selection of the themes and artists constitutes a snapshot of the points of view and areas of substantive emphasis artists are occupied with today. An impressive example is Finnbogi Pétursson’s water basin installation entitled “Earth” that leads off the encounter with the environment and the future. The Icelandic artist visualizes our planet’s own specific frequency and uses this low-frequency sound to enable installation visitors to hear and feel the Earth. What he seems to be saying here is that we have a very abstract relationship to our planet; nevertheless, it’s alive and resonates together with us. The “Protei” project by Cesar Harada of the Open-H20 group for ocean sensing and cleaning takes a similar tack. In collaboration with an online & offline assemblage of artists, designers and scientists, he has constructed a whole fleet of assorted sailing drones. His aim is to work together with people interested in developing more drones that, due to their various designs and manifold capabilities, can be used to clean up all sorts of pollution in various different bodies of water. Eric Paulos’ “Energy Parasites” is a satiric take on the question of how humankind will deal with energy resources in the future. The American artist builds hand-made devices that parasitically tap energy, no matter where it comes from or to whom it belongs. Paulos’ mission here is to endow energy with a material form, to encourage people to think about other modes of distribution, and to inspire creative forms of generating and storing energy. In the last work of this thematic cluster, Daan van den Berg presents his 3D printer product “Merrick.” On one hand, this is yet another illustration of how we’ll be able to produce everyday requisites ourselves in the very near future. On the other hand, since the databank of the Dutch artist’s project is replete with CAD files hacked from IKEA, he’s simultaneously clueing people in to the fact that when it comes to ideas for a sustainable future, what’s called for is creative waywardness and not just technological developments that generate standardized mass wares.
The second part of the exhibition scrutinizes control and manipulation of our mediatized world. “Desire of Codes,” the acclaimed trilogy by Japanese artist Seiko Mikami, features simply functioning forms of surveillance that really make people sit up and take notice, and she even further enhances the feeling of being under observation by deploying so-called surveillance creatures, whereby conventional apparatuses we’re familiar with from public squares and buildings become horrifying when endowed with traits and forms of movement suggestive of live animals. This is juxtaposed to “Street Ghosts” by Paolo Cirio. The Italian artist calls into question the general laws governing the public sphere and shows how surveillance is actually being played down as harmless nowadays. He takes people who are recognizable on Google Street View and brings them back into the real world. Thus: two public realms, though highly dissimilar rules of play prevail in each one. Some locals perusing the case of Google Street View in Bilbao will no doubt be surprised that they’re not only part of an action being staged in conjunction with an exhibition, but have also just been immortalized in the digital public domain. The cityscape and its surveillance is likewise the subject matter of “Faceless,” an installation by Manu Luksch. In 2002, this Austrian woman who’s made London her home for many years initiated the Faceless Project in which she requested that all owners of surveillance cameras turn over to her any video in which she can be seen. The resulting material then became the basis for her highlight reel, her manifesto and her installation that are part of this exhibition. Another project that spotlights countenances is “Face to Facebook” by Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico. A program written by the artists enabled them to steal about a million Facebook profile pictures and the accompanying information. This data then flowed into a dating website specially created by the artists. As soon as Facebook became aware of the theft and the first unintended dating encounters were taking place, they were hit by an avalanche of complaints and threats as well as expressions of interest. For the exhibition, the original dating website—that had to be taken offline in short order—has been reactivated and is presented in a kiosk setting. Another project that engages in subversive manipulation is “Newstweek” by Julian Oliver and Daniil Vasiliev. A device that’s plugged into any electrical socket and connects up to the local public WLAN network makes it possible to modify websites beyond the point of recognition. Who’s controlling whom? Who’s manipulating whom? The artists question how information is dealt with, how it’s deployed so as to influence the creation and perception of political, cultural and economic realities.
The third cluster is framed by an exhortation: find your voice and express yourself. This is a matter of active participation in engendering works of art or interacting with them.
Matthew Gardiner is an Australian artist who served a term as artist-in-residence at the Ars Electronica Futurelab before joining the staff on a full-time basis. His specialty is robotics, he’s fascinated by origami, and his two passions merge in a work entitled “Oribotics.” Gardiner fabricates his objects in the Ars Electronica Center’s Fablab. In doing so, he integrates Fablab visitors into the production process and also makes DIY instructions available on an open-source basis. His latest installation, “Light is time, folds are space,” has never before been presented in this constellation—400 folded elements form a so-called nano-surface that moving light makes to seem in constant transition.
“The Free Universal Construction Kit” by Golan Levin and Shawn Sims is an art project conducted in the form of a workshop. The object: producing a set of functional adapters to interlock pieces from the 10 most popular toy construction kits—Lego, Duplo, Fischertechnik, Gears! Gears! Gears!, K’Nex, Krinkles (Bristle Blocks), Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoy, Zome and Zoob. These workshops also provide an ideal setting to consider and discuss intellectual property, open-source culture, and reverse engineering as a cultural technique.
“Think Silently Act Noisily” is an interactive work created especially for this exhibition by Ehu Zarata Lab, a collective of three Basque artists: Josu Rekalde, Mikel Arce and Enrike Hurtado. This is a spatial installation that consists of two green wall panels that can be written on with white chalk. Various sensors are hidden behind each panel. Whenever a visitor writes on one of the panels, sensors register the sound and the movement, which are then manipulated by a central computer and sent back to the visitor in the form of sound information. The result is an endless loop of paradoxical communication on the subject of “Find Your Voice and Express Yourself” at a location in which a work, a process and the installation visitors are brought together on equal terms.
The point of this exhibition is to showcase the highly diverse processes artists use as catalysts and the reactions they trigger. Artists are these enzymes, the intellectual proteins of our time. They distill essential themes and reveal processes that challenge in new and interesting ways our perception of our world.