Fighting for the future with the digital healing + survivalism of NTU collective’s Ubulawu at London’s Auto Italia

20 June 2017

Where do we put our faith? In the fight for the future, certain things normally drop out, which isn’t an option for South African collective NTU (members Nolan Dennis, Bogosi Sekhukhuni and Tabita Rezaire). Keenly aware of the need to reconsider allegiances to separatist western narratives of progress, wherein only certain ideas get heard and coded into a future vision, their ongoing project, NTUSAVE is a mission to recover lost technologies. Broadly defined as both the ways of doing something, and the means of organisation, refering to both artefacts and methodologies, technologies aren’t neutral. “I believe strongly that traditions of African spirituality and her abundant, complex systems of knowledge have so much more to offer us than pride or self worth,” notes NTU member Sekhukhuni in a conversation carried out over Google Docs, talking about the process of rediscovery as an urgent step in self- preservation and welfare, with the “potential to holistically assist our daily lives in ways western intellectual thinking cannot.”

NTU Ubulawu (2017) Installation view. Courtesy the artists + Auto Italia, London. Photo Corey Bartle Sanderson

Between April 29 to June 11, the trio presented NTU: Ubulawu, their first UK exhibition, which ran at London’s Auto Italia. On entering the unassuming Bethnal Green space on a sleepy Sunday, I’m met by the sounds of cascading water. The air is wet. It feels generative. By the time I get around to reading the press release, I am already transported. The group initially came together through shared interests in esoteric African history, spiritual traditions and cultures of technology, but behind NTU lies the fact that these proclaimed ‘digital-healers’ are survivalists too. For Sekhukhuni, the “desire to change the perceptions and visual language of what advanced technology can look like” is central. While we’re now arguably used (read, familiar and addicted) to the trans-meditative state supported by technologies such as the Internet, we shouldn’t be such sticklers. There are other things that can get us there. And, as it turns out, nature has its own ideas. Don’t let her humble aesthetics fool you, the saviour comes in unexpected hardware. Plant clippings and H2O might just be our most crucial resources in the fight for the future.

NTU Ubulawu (2017) Installation view. Courtesy the artists + Auto Italia, London. Photo Corey Bartle Sanderson

Symbiosis is a major key here. CAD (computer-aided-design), InDesign and natural formation coalesce. Two screens, happily submerged in a pool of water, installed in a vitrine, fill the back room. White box structures resembling ancient temples or libation tables (a dedicated space to make liquid offerings to gods) are nestled into neat mounds of earth — like little ant hills scattered across the project space. In the tops of each of these structures, which look like crop circles, are different plant clippings, identified by corresponding graphic posters on the wall behind each mound. I learn about Umthunyelelwa – Leurostylia Capensis, Umsuzwane – Diospyros Galpinii, and Mthathe – Ptaeroxolyn Obliquum. Amidst these structures (based on designs from Kemetic tradition; a spiritual sect based on Ancient Egyptian religion) and the ‘video lagoon,’ NTU introduce us to their not-so-new materials: water, and the recommended accompaniment, Ubulawu, a psychoactive medicinal root, commonly known and used in South African tribes, like the Xhosa and Zulu, that induces a lucid-dream state. The hardware; the devices themselves, might not be what you’d expect but it’s the content that counts. NTU educate us on these natural technologies — invoking the psychotropic, the phytochemical and the ethnobotanic along the way.

We know water is vital to survival. We’re made up of 70 per cent of it. We know we must hydrate. That much is common knowledge. But I bet you didn’t know that water is conscious. According to NTU, water has been a free radical all along. And it isn’t only conscious material, it’s resistant technology.

NTU Ubulawu (2017) Detail view. Courtesy the artists + Auto Italia, London. Photo Corey Bartle Sanderson

Over the course of their research, (which Nolan explains over Google Doc combines “libation apparatuses, water therapy, cryptographic interfaces, alternative currencies, ancient knowledge, non-human intelligence, and hidden global networks”), the trio came across the laboratory experiments of Dr Masaru Emoto and Prof. Dr. Bernd Kröplin, whose findings suggests that water has a memory. That is to say that water archives its own experiences. In some sense, both black radical re-imaginings of the kidnap and transportation of enslaved bodies across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Americas known as the ‘Middle Passage,’ — like that of Detroit electronic duo Drexciya — and more ‘traditional’ accounts of the same gesture towards this understanding of water, as a conscious body carrying other denied bodies of knowledge. But Sekhukhuni laments that investigation often drops off, with little coverage of a time before this break, brought to you by what he calls ‘Western Capitalist Grammar.’ We don’t hear about Africa prior to this point — and what it has to offer the greater project of reimagining the African past-future and global present-future.

NTU: Ubulawu reaches back further, extending the investigation into water’s capabilities prior to this point. Water has a longer history of transformation and carriage, which isn’t as simple as our elementary scientific schooling of solid-liquid-gas. There’s more to know about how it can be at once a path of least resistance, a solvent and seemingly silent accommodating body, while simultaneously being one of most resistance. NTU continue this examination at its outer limits, “working with Ubulawu oneirogenic (dream-inducing) preparations of South African plants to recode properties of water as an agent of consciousness,” writes Nolan. Given growing fears around internet surveillance, especially in a city like London, it’s about time for finding other portals and channels of consciousness for sharing and connecting.

NTU Ubulawu (2017) Installation view. Courtesy the artists + Auto Italia, London. Photo Corey Bartle Sanderson

By the time I leave Auto Italia, something has happened. Weeks later, the connection still hasn’t dropped. I sit down and write this article. Whatever they put in the water, into that space, is still in my system.**

NTU presented Ubulawu at London’s Auto Italia running April 29 to June 11, 2017.

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Fantasy as political praxis + resisting augmentation in the New New Age with Ruth Angel Edwards

29 March 2017

“Subcultures can both recreate the values present in their time or reject them, in a multitude of different ways,” writes Ruth Angel Edwards via email about her practice, centred around a fastidious exploration of music subgenres, youth culture, sex and the politics of visibility. About to present a performance on April 8, with Emily Pope and other collaborating artists as part of the Feral Kin group exhibition programme, at London’s Auto Italia, Edwards renders youth and counter-culture as a reflection of the historical and geographical environments in which they appear. Focus is placed on the trajectories and lineages of subcultures as popularised, accessible articulation of a politics; alternate worlds within societies, distinct from mainstream culture, with their own conventions, shared value systems, and coded modes of expression.

Ruth Angel Edwards, ‘UNTITLED II’ (2016). Install view. Courtesy the artist + The Residence Gallery, London.

An underlying personal criticality structures Edwards’ insights into the current landscape of subgenres — particularly EDM and dubstep. For her research and performance, what is important is “trying to get to the bottom of where the impulses for these various developments in human history come from. At the same time, exploring the flaws present in these movements, as well as thinking about what was admirable, what mistakes can be learned from, and what’s useful to think about in relation to now.” As these cultural peripheries undergo processes of commodification, accountability and ethics must then be addressed accordingly. When does an act of resistance reflect the intentions of the purveyors? Or, when does it become a manifestation of augmented systems of control?

Addressing these concerns directly in the group exhibition Info Pura at The Residence Gallery in June of last year, Edwards presented textile-based, wearable sculptures adorned with beads and friendship bracelets characteristic of ornamentations and relics worn by EDM festival-goers. In so doing, these objects directly enter a conversation in which individuality and originality is observed and understood against the mechanisms of late capitalism and neoliberalism — a system fundamentally concerned with redefining its own contradictions through the exploitation of accessible social relations in order to survive.

Glastonbury 2015. Courtesy Ruth Angel Edwards.

Despite an ambivalence toward the ability to form a formidable resistance effort to the insidiousness of late capitalism, Edwards maintains that, at its core, there is something still present in anti-conformist and antagonistic movements and festivals, which is emancipatory, or at least reassuring and somehow necessary. These spaces serve as a kind of confirmation of themselves that people are reaching for, even if it’s no longer present, or harder to find in similar spaces. It’s with this in mind that Edwards discusses her continued research into the neoliberal landscape and alternative ways of living that exist at the intersection of fantasy and political praxis.

** Have you always had an interest in EDM and or dubstep?

RAE: I became interested in EDM, Dubstep and related subgenres for several reasons. First, I grew up around festivals and music subcultures, and have participated in them in various capacities. Second,there are traces of various historical underground dance music is still faintly present in today’s EDM – many of which originally held some political or oppositional meaning. But those traces have been divorced so thoroughly from their original contexts that they have been completely neutralised.

In terms of the production of the music, it’s this clean polished product made with absolute contrived precision. The club spaces and festivals that host EDM acts are sanitised, controlled environments. It’s cynical, apolitical music for a nihilistic, cynical time.

I have this conspiracy idea of EDM – that it’s propaganda made to encourage conformism under the guise of hedonism. It’s lyrics, the production, instrumentation, automation and the techniques used to emotionally and physically manipulate an audience can be read as an implementation of this. I feel like these genres perfectly reflect an era of late capitalism where recreation, communication, sexuality, personal expression are supposedly ‘free’ but are in fact highly mediated and augmented by systems of control.

Courtesy Ruth Angel Edwards.

** You contextualize female physicality as a way to explore the hedonism of dance culture. But also underlying dance culture and festival culture at large is a sense of free love / queerness / community and openness. How do you negotiate this complicated aspect of festival subculture, if at all?

RAE: ‘Festival culture’ has become a whole different phenomenon in the last 20 to 30 years. They have always been complex spaces — I never want to be seen as blindly romanticizing the past, and have looked a lot at subcultural histories from a feminist and queer perspective, aiming to expose the inconsistencies so often present with subculture/counter-cultural ‘utopian’ movements. But festivals were always, in theory at least, unregulated spaces –Temporary Autonomous Zones; Dionysian free spaces.

In recent years, there has been a massive shift toward the acceptability of these spaces, with certain festivals like Glastonbury, for example, in the UK, taking on mainstream status. But this mainstream acceptance and popularity has happened alongside the increased regulation of these spaces.

For me, the experience of festivals flips between a kind of horror and a deep affection. As a worker, music performer, and just attendee for a lot of my life, I have a complex relationship with them.

Courtesy Ruth Angel Edwards.

** With direct and indirect political considerations, your practice functions as an anthropological study. You often relate aspects of subculture to various key moments in culture and government policy. What notable developments have you been looking at recently?

RAE: I’ve recently been looking a lot at New Age Travelers in the UK, the different waves of the movement between the 70s and the 90s, and it’s continuing links with activism. After having spent a lot of time in California earlier in the year, I think a part of me was really interested in looking at something quite specifically British. Also, there’s been so much talk amongst London’s arts and political communities about alternative ways of living recently — the housing crisis, ideas of being driven out of the city, or rejecting the city, communality, rejecting the ‘normal’ setup.

** Who or what were the New Age Travelers?

RAE: The New Age Travelers movement was linked to squatting. Especially when it came to mass unemployment in the 80s, it was a logical choice for those affected to start living in vehicles. It feels relevant to look back on this movement now in these precarious times. Also, the movement’s political fragmentation feels interesting to reflect on — it was decentred quite literally in that it was not based in any one locality. It was also politically fragmented. It failed; for a variety of different reasons. That lifestyle was more or less completely shut down by the state.

My responses when researching the movement, and thinking over my own interactions with it over the years, was conflicted. But to me there’s definitely something inspiring and courageous about people attempting to live in that way-in a very literal and extreme way by today’s standards. It felt important.

Courtesy Ruth Angel Edwards.

** You’ve mentioned instances of cultural appropriation as they appear in festival culture, most recently within the New Age Travelers movement. What do you make of this tendency?

RAE: Looking back at New Age Travelers in the UK, some of the fashion and politics is definitely relatable to now, but this is one of the stand-out things, which makes it seem dated — dreadlocks (on white people), ‘ethnic’ clothing as fashion, and people living in Native American-style teepees completely out of context. It’s cringey at best, and at worst just offensive. The movement itself was born out of a rejection of mainstream Western society’s values, so I imagine it felt logical to look to other cultures as alternatives and to try and identify with them, to learn from and recreate them. Even as I’m writing this I’m hyper conscious of coming across as some kind of fucked up apologist(!).

In terms of what I make of this tendency, in this movement but also as it occurs in subcultures more broadly — of course I think it’s necessary to expose and put a stop to disrespectful, ignorant or offensive instances of appropriation. But, essentially, I always try to look at subcultures and the individuals involved in them with some level of humility, while staying critical.

Courtesy Ruth Angel Edwards.

** Two of your recent shows, Derivatives and Futures at Los Angeles’ Human Resources, and your solo exhibition, Ruth Angel Edwards, last year at Arcadia Missa, have accompanying written work. What relationship do you have with text?

RAE: With the show at Human Resources I was stressing-out massively. I wrote to Emily Pope, who is an artist friend who uses writing, to get her thoughts on the show and to help me write a blurb for the gallery. But then I just thought — why am I trying to shoehorn my actual thoughts on this into a particular, acceptable mould, to make the show conform to some accepted idea of intellectual authority or prestige? So I decided to just print the entire email out, with spelling and grammar mistakes in, and used that as the hand-out instead.

I’ve definitely felt constrained by the pressures to conform to certain writing styles — where artists are expected to write like academics. I guess I want to position myself against this. There are definitely some artists who do it really well, and that’s great. I just don’t think as an artist you should be expected to have to adopt this language. I’m anti-hierarchy, anti-elitism — I feel like multiple voices should be allowed in. And I’m definitely anti-professional performance! I think there’s a violence to this expected professionalism, which is making us all insecure, self-censoring, anxious wrecks with stunted communication abilities. 

** Seamlessly moving between art and music — approaching each with careful research and criticality — you’ve recently ventured into radio with your project Got 2 b Radio. Can you please tell us more about the project and how broadcast factors into your creative production?

RAE: I’ve moved between art and music since as long as I can remember, really, but it was only in the last maybe two to three years that I ended up with a practice, which kind of merges both. Radio is great because it’s such a nice way to connect with an audience in whatever space they’re in, as part of their day. Got 2 b is a monthly radio programme I started with friend and artist Emily Pope. It airs on Resonance FM every fourth Monday of every month. Me and Emily work on at least one new sound piece together for every show, as well as mixing it up with music, other individual sound and spoken pieces, and other’s guest contributions. I guess it’s more pop cultural than the sound work I do on my own, and looks at culture more broadly, at what we describe as ‘neoliberal landscapes,’ like advertising, film etcetera. The tone is slightly different. Emily is an incredible writer and spoken word artist, with a very unique ‘voice’ within London’s emerging artist scenes. The show moves between humour and being really abrasive! It’s a fun project to work on.

I feel very lucky to have got to know some of the most incredible communities and individuals through music, who have had and continue to have the most inspiring and positive influences on my life. I believe in music communities so hard!**

The Feral Kin group exhibition is on at London’s Auto-Italia, running February 28 to April 9, 2017.

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Metahaven @ Auto Italia, Oct 4 – Oct 30

4 October 2016

Metahaven is presenting solo exhibition Information Skies at London’s Auto Italia, opening October 4 and running to October 30.

This the Dutch art and design studio’s first UK solo exhibition, opening concurrently at Mumbai Art Room in India. The group will present their 2016 film ‘Information Skies’, which is informed by VR and dramatises experiential technology. The film uses live footage and animation, while thematically exploring concepts of authenticity positioned as “fictional provocations” and questions belief systems. The film includes a young couple in a forest with warriors, dragons, and dreams.

The show also includes a documentary film installation entitled ‘The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda)’, a 70-minute “dive into online and offline truths, fictions, and their sponsors”. Benjamin H. Bratton, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, and Peter Pomerantsev offer commentary in the video, which identifies “how planetary-scale interface culture is transforming geopolitics and state power”.

Together both films form a “new cinematic topography, creating fragmented territories of images and suggestions, and building a worldview that is at once attractive and terrifying”.

See the FB event page for more details.**

Metahaven @ Auto Italia South East, Oct 4 - Oct 30

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Dream Babes @ Auto Italia, Sep 7 – Sep 9

5 September 2016

The Dream Babes intersectional queer experience programme is on at London’s Auto Italia, opening September 7 and running to September 9.

The long-term project, made in collaboration with Victoria Sin features artists using speculative fiction as a productive medium and is comprised of many iterations, public moments, and opportunities to come together. The press release states, “in the face of representational violence, speculative fiction is a productive medium to invade existing narratives that naturalize normative states of sex, gender and race, imaging futurity that does not depend on existing historical and social infrastructure”.

On September 7, the programme begins with ‘Resis’dance DJ Workshop’. It aims to give an opportunity for female, trans, and non-binary people to learn the basics of DJing in a welcoming, non judgemental environment. Cassandre Greenberg and Christopher Kirubi form the duo Special Tears and will perform live and present ‘CRY BABY: Get Close’, some notes on desperation and closeness. Their presentation and performance follows with DJ sets from Ann Ayoola, Oretha, cruise_control and Manara.

September 8 begins with Evan Ifekoya and Victoria Sin, who invite attendees to “partake in a moment of queer collectivity focusing on experiences of nightlife and the physical within the social body”. Chooc Ly Tan’s Spacer Woman will DJ after, presenting a varied selection influenced by Hip Hop, Afrobeat, Bollywood, experimental Dakbe, and high-voltage Electro.

Delany Fanclub opens on September 9, an informal afternoon screening group, looking at the work of science fiction writer and essayist Samuel Delany. Followed by ‘Lipstix and Lipsynx Performative Workshop’ with Adam Saad and Raju Rage. The workshop intends to uncover secret present selves and open up queer portals of self-affirmation for “moments of future whateva”. The programme closes with a DJ set from Sydney UltraOmni.

See the Auto Italia website for more details.**

Dream Babes @ Auto Italia, 7 Sep - 9 Sep

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Syria Mobile Film Festival @ Auto Italia, Jul 28

26 July 2016

The Syria Mobile Film Festival is screening at London’s Auto Italia followed by a Q&A with festival organiser and artist Zaher Omareen on July 28.

Featuring is 4th Floor by Majd Al-Hamwi and Lawand Zaza and other short films made through the festival’s workshops and grants programmes. This is the first independent screening in London leading up from its participation in Auto Italia’s exhibition programme Hailweed, now extended until July 24. 

Established in 2014, the festival creates a “unique platform to encourage professional and amateur directors to produce new work using mobile cameras” inside Syria, despite the hard security conditions. Thus far, it has taken the work of Syrian directors to more than 20 cities around the world. 

See the FB event page for more details.**

Mohamed Noor Ahmed, ‘Life is Beautiful’ (2016). Courtesy the artist.


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Hailweed @ Auto Italia, Jun 11 – July 17

10 June 2016

The Hailweed group project and exhibition is on at London’s Auto Italia, opening June 11 and running to July 17.

The event featuring several artists, writers and collective agencies, including Aimar Arriola, Research Center for Proxy PoliticsSyria Mobile Film Festival and Suzanne Treister, launches Auto Italia’s new project space on Bonner Road in Bethnal Green.

The exhibition space will become a host for a set of “wild (eco)systems” in a collective imagining of “formats for the usage of artistic space” exploring the relationship between artist and institution. This includes presenting work that investigates notions of “dependency and parasitic potential within oppressive infrastructures” whether legal, emotional, financial or biopolitical, along with ideas of “sovereignty, identity, care and self-interest”.

See the Auto Italia website for details.**

Hailweed (2016) @ Auto Italia, London.
Hailweed (2016) @ Auto Italia, London.
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Sunrise Sunset performance @ KW Institut, Apr 30

26 April 2016

A day of performances will accompany the current exhibition, SECRET SURFACE: Where Meaning Materialises at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art on April 30.

The event is part of the show’s performance programme called Sunrise Sunset which recently featured ‘Clapback’ by niv Acosta that aqnb reviewed earlier this month, and follows a live work, Litmus Shuffle, by Patrick Staff and Cara Tolmie on April 7.

During the day Auto Italia, Anna Barham, Lawrence Lek, Emily Roysdon and Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa will look to hone in on and literalise the relationship between observer and observed. They will be both present and presenting works that focus in on moments where meaning materialises, asking if live art and its participation can act like an object that is treated, embodied and imbued by its maker.

New York-Stockholm based Roysdon has worked with KW to develop the day’s pacing and spatial arrangement. The artist with her collaborators will also perform her ongoing work ‘UNCOUNTED [Performance 7]’, short and intermittent readings of Roysdon’s randomised script in the courtyard, where the street meets the space, while Ramírez-Figueroa will combine bedtime rituals with printmaking in a dreamlike mediative scene as the day comes to a close.

See the KW website for details.**

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Incremental Architecture, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Sultana
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, ‘Incremental Architecture’ (2015). Courtesy the artist + Galerie Sultana, Paris.


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15 September 2015

As part of group exhibition IMAGE IS A VIRUS // ON ACTIVISM, running at Berlin’s ACUD MACHT NEU from September 11 to 24, Auto Italia will be leading a panel discussion along with Paul Feigelfeld at the ACUD Studio on September 18.

The London-based artist-run space organisers Kate Cooper, Marianne Forrest and Marleen Boschen will speak with Feigelfeld, academic coordinator of the Digital Cultures Research Lab at Leuphana University Lüneburg, on questions raised by the exhibition theme inspired by art pioneers General Idea. The Canadian collective’s work preempted the viral dimension of the hypercirculating image in contemporary culture by decades, most famously with their Imagevirus series.

Th exhibition features work by the Lensbased class of Hito Steyerl, including Pauline Niedermayer, Bruno Siegrist and Till Wittwer among others, and follows ideas of anarchic images in the digital era, their circulation and representation and the “activist potential of the image in a contemporary discourse of hyper circulation”.

See the ACUD MACHT NEU exhibition page for details. **

Julia Tcharfas, Tim Ivison, Rachel Pimm, and George Moustakas, 'Recent Work By Artists' (2013). Commissioned by Auto Italia. Courtesy the artist.
Julia Tcharfas, Tim Ivison, Rachel Pimm, and George Moustakas, ‘Recent Work By Artists’ (2013). Commissioned by Auto Italia. Courtesy the artists.
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Jaakko Pallasvuo @ The Royal Standard, Jul 17

15 July 2015

As part of the On Coping: A Reading for Liverpool project at Auto Italia, artist Jaakko Pallasvuo will be leading a clay workshop entitled ‘Hobby Point’ at Liverpool’s The Royal Standard on July 17 from 2:30 to 5:30pm.

The project comes as part residency, part research, and part public programme, bringing in international artists to form “emotional alliances and collective strategies” to counter the compromising social and economic pressures of the modern art world and create a shared space for exchange and support.

Pallasvuo will be hosting a workshop teaching participants to handle clay while viewing a video, accompanied by a discussion about art, about hobbies, and about “what’s fun, what’s unprofessional and what’s worth doing”. Joining him to participate in the project are a handful of other artists, including Erica Scourti and Marleen Boschen.

See the project page for details. **

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Future Polities @ Auto Italia, Nov 24 – Jan 5

24 November 2014

Art/ Work Association (A/WA) is putting together a series of readings and workshops titled Future Polities and taking place at Auto Italia‘s King Cross space from November 24 through to January 5.

A/WA exists as an association of “creative workers” and artists churning out a self-generated programme of talks, workshops, reading groups, screenings, seminars and critical feedback sessions. For their latest series, they’ve joined forces with sci-fi and future-oriented art magazine, Living In The Future, for a five-session programme running through the next six weeks.

Based on the premise that science fiction offers “means with which to critique and reimagine the present”, Future Polities invites a selection of artists, writers, and cultural theorists to discuss future possibilities, including a group discussion with Ben Vickers, the initiator of unMonastery,  a reading of Ursula Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed, and a discussion with Helen Hester.

See the Future Polities programme page for details. **

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POLYMYTH x Miss Information @ Auto Italia, Oct 4 – Nov 16

3 October 2014

Auto Italia is hosting the new POLYMYTH x Miss Information project at their London space from October 4 to November 16.

The Kate Cooper-(co)run gallery is bringing in the group project, which features (among others) April Greiman, Pablo Jones-Soler, Metahaven, Holly Herndon, and Pinar&Viola, to their Kings Cross space to explore the “narratives and grammar enmeshed in the technologically accelerated now”. Using scripted realities and speculative fiction as tools for re-imagining, POLYMYTH examines modern day myths and how they figure in society.

The selected contributors work together to explore the magic realism of the network(ed) culture, the simultaneous and parallel identities afforded by it, and the frictions and fractures of contemporary hyperconnectivity.

Greiman’s work visualises aspects of the MIS-infoscape of sea and air, Metahaven and Herndon play with avatar anxiety, Pinar&Viola examine the quest for unconditional love, and Jones-Soler provides that augmented interior within which the group show rests.

See the Auto Italia exhibition page for details. **


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An interview with Metahaven

29 September 2014

It’s appropriate that I’m talking to Metahaven on PiratePad. Having pushed for Skype and settling for ‘chat’, Daniel van der Velden – with creative partner Vinca Kruk always cc’d into email – sends a link to a ‘Hello!’ on the online etherpad doc, the design agency’s answers highlighted pink, to my green, in what is a last-minute interview graciously granted and swiftly started within a day of the suggestion. It’s a real-time conversation as both ends multitask – answering, waiting, working, searching for links – with van der Velden occasionally poking fun, once bluntly retorting, “is this an attempt at an art school examination?” to my inane inquisitions on a colour choice. Another time simply replying, “’magic realism’ sounds nice” to a long-winded interpretation of what the use of the term in the press release for their role in Auto Italia’s upcoming POLYMYTH x Miss Information exhibition is all about –apparently nothing much.

Metahaven x Holly Herndon, 'HOME' (2014). Screenshot. Courtesy Metahaven.
Metahaven x Holly Herndon, ‘Home’ (2014). Screenshot. Courtesy Metahaven.

Dry humour aside, Metahaven’s insight on both the formal and political machinations of aesthetics and design is unparalleled. It’s something they already examined in their recent Black Transparency exhibition only to generously elaborate in conversation; from the influence of Walgreens and Sandra Bullock on the visual language of US intelligence agency, NSA, to the role 90s sci-fi and Ferrero Rocher plays in their recruitment strategy. This is, after all, the duo who developed the brand for renegade micronation, Sealand, and designed merchandise for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.

“We were always interested in pop”, says Metahaven, as they point to the “pop phenomenon” that is the aforementioned Australian-born enemy of the state, suggesting that the move to working on the visuals for cutting-edge electronic artist Holly Herndon is “not like a switch at all”. All pretty pastel icons and feathered circle cutouts their debut collaborative video for ‘Home’, released by RVNG Intl, is essentially a break-up ballad for Herndon’s laptop. After celebrating the embodiment of her complete being in her harddrive in ‘Chorus ’, ‘Home’ follows a betrayal, a breach of trust, where she suddenly realises nothing is as it seems and there’s someone else involved -her computer wasn’t the person she thought it was.

PiratePad doesn’t sound nearly as cute as Google Docs. There’s the gooey voiced velar stops of a baby in the latter, the pursed-lipped ‘p’s’ of the former evoking an off-the-grid exile stalking the peripheries of mainstream channels, cut adrift on the swampy surface of the deep dark web. ‘Home’ too looks nice and sounds like it’s safe but bad things happen where you least expect them.

I noticed the colour scheme for the major text in video you did with Holly was very similar to Google’s primary colours. Was that intentional?

Metahaven: No. You will see that of Google’s colors, yellow is missing. The colors used are red, green and blue.

Is there some special significance to those particular colours?

Mh: Not particularly, but they are RGB.

And RGB is relevant because…?

Mh: RGB is what our screens have. It is the CMYK of the digital world. But nothing of such portentiousness was behind the type color choice. We tried different options and this looked nicest, the most bubblegum like.

It seems like there’s an emphasis on this ‘soft’ aesthetic around of these enterprises like the NSA in the icons that inundate the screen of ‘Home’. Are these images that already existed or are they ones as imagined by you?

Mh: Trevor Paglen has done a lot of work on the so-called “black programs” and the patches that are worn by pilots who fly Darpa spy planes from Groom Lake Air Force Base, etc. The NSA’s secret programs have similar icons but ones that are mixed with a system administrator, USB key, Windows / Office art world that reveals the aesthetic realities of waging war from behind a fake wood veneer desk.

To us it is fascinating that these icons and brands were developed purely internally; never to be seen or understood by the public, which in a way gave their designers total freedom. One NSA program is called BOUNDLESS INFORMANT. A GCHQ homemade computer Trojan is called Ambassador’s Reception.

Indeed, the icons in ‘Home’, which are the NSA’s, are more Office and Post-It than these black world patches. All the icons used are found images. We designed none of them but on some occasions made them black or embossed them with marble, depending on how much NSA we wanted in that part of the video—highlighting their shape, or silhouette, rather than their content.

Metahaven x Holly Herndon, 'Home' (2014). Screenshot. Courtesy Metahaven.
Metahaven x Holly Herndon, ‘Home’ (2014). Screenshot. Courtesy Metahaven.

That’s interesting when you consider the internal branding of a corporate office; videos and slogans that try to humanise a purely economic, or productive intent. Also with advertising, that 4G campaign that says something like ‘now you have no excuse not to stay in touch’, like that’s something you should be excited about…

Mh: Why are you not excited about staying in touch all the time? (laughs). Telecommunications companies like o2 used to sell the idea of connectivity of which they were also the caretakers and providers, like you connected to the network using their equipment, their telephones, and now they are by comparison much more invisible and merging into ever larger abstract connectivity gateway corporations.

Those ads are interesting, as the experience of connectivity is nothing all that special anymore.

How do you achieve such insight into the internal processes of these organisations?

Mh: What do you mean?

Is it information that is readily available to the public? Like these in-office NSA icons etc…

MH: No, it’s basically us guesstimating our way through, based on having viewed NSA recruitment videos and having seen every YouTube appearance of Keith Alexander [agency Director].  As designers we have quite a keen eye for the psychology of font use, color use, and drop shadows, for example. You can tell that most icons for the NSA were done under quite nerdy and boring circumstances, coming out of something that is an overlap between army, office, hacker, and wannabe. The aforementioned British government Trojan AMBASSADOR’S RECEPTION refers to a Ferrero Rocher TV ad from the 1990s. That in turn may tell you something about the age of the person who has given the Trojan its name.

It is really interesting you mention these visual cues, considering the complexity of these systems and interconnections between economics, entertainment, war, food, business…

Mh: I recall many years ago, I was doing some teaching in an art school in the US, and you had to come to the system administrator to get access credentials to the network. This was pre-9/11. The system administrator was very corpulent, had a ponytail, and had a USB key and cell phone dangling from his belt, and was seated amid monitors, paperwork, and half-broken routers and so on.

Then he didn’t really look at me but just said, “ARE YOU VISCOM?” It took me time to realise that he meant “visual communication”. The NSA seems a bit like that; acronym-obsessed and wanting to appear really “robust” but it is all a lot messier than that. But you are right: entertainment, war, food, and business. That’s what it’s all about.

Like Newspeak – miniluv, minipax…

Mh: Exactly.

Do you think then, that these are conscious, systematic decisions being made by some kind of political elite or a culmination of all this imagery, ideology and conditioning, black swan events, that has lead to this bizarre visual culture?

Mh: The irony is that it’s probably not all that centrally controlled. The programs maybe are, but their iconography looks so chaotic. The NSA recruitment videos make the agency seem like a sort of Walgreens. They make it seem like everyone can get a job there, and it is in some way portraying itself as a sort of paradise of equality but you are encouraged not to think too much. They also have a public counsel, who puts everything the NSA does operationally which they can talk about publicly in very soft, democratic, and agreeable terms.

It sounds a lot like Silicon Valley.

mh: But without the competitive edge and the glam. There is no Evan Spiegel [Snapchat CEO] at the NSA… yet.

In what sense?

Mh: The NSA is a behemoth-sized state program with a large revolving door with the private industry. But it is not in itself innovative or cool. It is a state enterprise, and I think quite a good caretaker of its employees, because why would you encourage disgruntled former staffers to become whistleblowers? It may run on “unquestioned loyalty” more than on being a hip VC-funded startup.

Many of the NSA’s employees may have read some form of cypherpunk science fiction (Bruce Sterling has stated this—“They are my readers, those high-IQ spook geeks”) and then probably non-fiction books enlisting various “bad guys,” enemies of the state, etc. We think of the NSA as very The Net. Every time Keith Alexander says “cyber,” Sandra Bullock is hitting the keypad of her hacker pizza computer. That is also the scariest part. There is so much nostalgia and past in the NSA. It has nothing to do with the future—it doesn’t want it.

Okay, so you’re suggesting that they achieve this “unquestioned loyalty” by adopting an aesthetic that is different or similar to The Net? Because the Sandra Bullock movie isn’t very ‘bubblegum’…

Mh: Not really, no. We think that running the NSA, and creating all these icons, has a strong dependency on myth. Believing in certain myths, and some foundational imagery for these myths—the terrible cyberhacker, Julian Assange “the high tech terrorist” (© Joe Biden), and other things—are based on popular culture of the 1980s and 1990s, on spy novels, etc. It’s not that that gives you loyalty but there is probably some shared pool of references, internal memes, that run the show.

So then the other side of this is public entities that avoid these 90s science fiction tropes, visually and linguistically. Like the Google Glass colour range for example: “charcoal”, “tangerine”, “cotton” and “sky”, rather than black, orange, white, blue. It’s essentially a surveillance device, that you pay for but don’t own, packaged in smooth contours and neutral colours. If it looked more like a William Gibson character’s accessory people might react differently…

Mh: Totally, the aesthetics of totalitarian products are non-offensive and liberal; “apricot” rather than orange, “yoga” rather than martial arts, completely smooth, with the actual abstract power that is at work (in a Hannah Arendt kind of way, mind you) being neatly packaged on unilaterally positive and “amazing” terms. There are these Amanda Rosenberg videos where she (as the former PR lead for Google Glass) personifies various characters who are fascinated by someone they encounter who is wearing Google Glass. And one thing she says in this roleplay is that the glasses must be so helpful, because she always forgets names, and you can invisibly Google anyone you meet.

Do you recognise some sort of primal fear that drives all of this? This idea that as technology becomes more complex and its functions obscured, people seem to react in a similarly awed way… through conspiracy theory, myth-making, worship…

Mh: On the one hand technology is so integrated with life that we don’t see it and don’t question it. On the other hand it is some sort of ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Big Other’. So there’s the abstraction of technology’s embedded-ness, which is a bit like the classical idea that “good design is invisible”. We don’t question it.

Then there is technology’s overpowering Big Other presence, which is also an abstraction, but more Stalin than Dieter Rams.

Metahaven x Holly Herndon, 'HOME' (2014). Screenshot. Courtesy Metahaven.
Metahaven x Holly Herndon, ‘Home’ (2014). Screenshot. Courtesy Metahaven.

It’s interesting to watch Holly’s work evolve as it has. From something acutely personal and seemingly uncynical to this overtly political project she’s doing with you. Yet, outwardly it seems as though your position hasn’t changed since working with Wikileaks and Sealand. Was there a point in your career as Metahaven where there was a certain switch?

MH: Holly’s music has always been acutely personal and it still is. But she is interested in looking over the fences and boundaries of the music industry, while increasing her impact and audience at the same time. It is amazing to work with someone with such a strong sense of artistic autonomy and, at the same time, such a capacity for collaboration. Working on this is obviously very different from working with WikiLeaks and even so much more different from making things for Sealand.

We were always interested in pop. Around the time of the Sealand identity we were reading a lot of Richard Hamilton’s writings, and WikiLeaks was itself a pop phenomenon with Julian Assange telling us that in every given merchandising situation there should be no more than five choices for the consumer. The continuation with cutting-edge pop music feels very natural, and not like a switch at all, with the added pleasure of an amazing record label, RVNG. We just last week spent three days in Amsterdam with Holly and Mat, filming a new music video, for a forthcoming track. It will be insane.

How did the collaboration come about?

Mh: They sent us an email last year, and everything evolved from there.

The press release for your POLYMYTH collaboration mentions ‘magic realism’.

Mh: We didn’t write that press release! In our forthcoming book [Black Transparency] there is an essay that deals with Russian internet memes and their deployment in the Ukraine conflict. That is what magic realism makes me think of… what if we are not going towards more transparency but to an unaccountable, free-ranging fantasy. **

Metahaven is an Amsterdam-based strategic design agency. They will be taking part in the POLYMYTH x Miss Information group exhibition at London’s Auto Italia, running from October 4 to November 16, and Lunch Bytes’ The Commons panel at the ICA on October 4, 2014.

Header image: Metahaven x Holly Herndon, ‘Home’ (2014). Screenshot. Courtesy Metahaven.

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Golden Age Problems @ AISE, Jun 21 – Jul 13

20 June 2014

London’s Auto Italia South East presents the Golden Age Problems group project, running at their King’s Cross location from June 21 to July 13.

The artist-run organisation –run by Kate Cooper, Marianne Forrest, and Marleen Boschen –has been commissioning and producing new work since its 2007 launch, aiming to provide a comprehensive framework for the development of new approaches to both the production and the presentation of exhibitions.

The new Golden Age Problems project explores this innovative approach with an exhibition of images and objects partnered with narrative presentations and a series of performance events, featuring the works of Forrest and Boschen, as well as those of Benedict Drew, Oreet Ashery, Olivier Castel, and Plastique Fantastique, among others.

See the Auto Italia South East event page for details. **

Semiotic Score by Oreet Ashery. Image courtesy artist.
Semiotic Score by Oreet Ashery. Image courtesy artist.


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