Our visit last week to the Lousiana Museum north of Copenhagen had us take in four different exhibits that made an impression on me. One of them was Magnumb about the work of Arthur Jafa.

At first I was taken in by the beauty of this sculpture, right before realising the scars of violence it shows, based as it is on a iconic image from the US civil war era.


Ex-Slave Gordon, Arthur Jafa 2017, Vacuum-formed plastic. At the Louisiana Museum, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

Then there was the in part highly disturbing imagery of Jafa’s cinematography, making one recoil, yet at the same time because of its composition and sequencing pulling you in, making you stare. Having returned home, I found the interview below on the Lousiana Museum’s Vimeo channel, where Jafa talks extensively about his work.

Arthur Jafa: Not All Good, Not All Bad from Louisiana Channel on Vimeo.

I think it’s a highly fascinating interview, in its full 42 minutes. Particularly how Jafa talks about imagery, perceptions of good and evil, and imagined audiences for the things you create.

He talks about collecting images as (my phrasing) commonplacing, as taking ownership of something that otherwise might have been highly transitional even if important. How he sees the human reaction of disgust and recoil while watching something as a signal to look much closer, even stare at it. That the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras enable all to do such collection of imagery, how it permits everyone to capture things. Such as the violence against African Americans, which has been always there and is nothing new. The newness is how all of us are enabled to make it visible in new ways, on a new level of intensity.
He talks about the spectrum between good and bad, hence the title of the interview ‘not all good, not all bad’. That us typically wanting to pigeonhole someone or something as either good or bad, before finding out an aspect about it that doesn’t fit, should not lead to then fully switching to labeling it the opposite. You have to get comfortable with the discomfort of juggling different and opposite notions about someone or something at the same time.
He talks about the intended audience for his work, whom he is speaking to. “My work addresses black [American] people, everybody else gets to listen in.” How having a limited imagined audience for your work is not an exclusionary act. How it is something that breathes life into the work, injects meaning and passion into a creative expression, impossible to achieve if that work would have been imagined for everyone. After which that life, meaning and passion can be appreciated as well by anyone outside those that are originally being addressed.


Magnumb, a contraction of magnum and numb. At the Louisiana Museum, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

Some things I thought worth reading in the past days

  • A good read on how currently machine learning (ML) merely obfuscates human bias, by moving it to the training data and coding, to arrive at peace of mind from pretend objectivity. Because of claiming that it’s ‘the algorithm deciding’ you make ML a kind of digital alchemy. Introduced some fun terms to me, like fauxtomation, and Potemkin AI: Plausible Disavowal – Why pretend that machines can be creative?
  • These new Google patents show how problematic the current smart home efforts are, including the precursor that are the Alexa and Echo microphones in your house. They are stripping you of agency, not providing it. These particular ones also nudge you to treat your children much the way surveillance capitalism treats you: as a suspect to be watched, relationships denuded of the subtle human capability to trust. Agency only comes from being in full control of your tools. Adding someone else’s tools (here not just Google but your health insurer, your landlord etc) to your home doesn’t make it smart but a self-censorship promoting escape room. A fractal of the panopticon. We need to start designing more technology that is based on distributed use, not on a centralised controller: Google’s New Patents Aim to Make Your Home a Data Mine
  • An excellent article by the NYT about Facebook’s slide to the dark side. When the student dorm room excuse “we didn’t realise, we messed up, but we’ll fix it for the future” defence fails, and you weaponise your own data driven machine against its critics. Thus proving your critics right. Weaponising your own platform isn’t surprising but very sobering and telling. Will it be a tipping point in how the public views FB? Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis
  • Some of these takeaways from the article just mentioned we should keep top of mind when interacting with or talking about Facebook: FB knew very early on about being used to influence the US 2016 election and chose not to act. FB feared backlash from specific user groups and opted to unevenly enforce their terms or service/community guidelines. Cambridge Analytica is not an isolated abuse, but a concrete example of the wider issue. FB weaponised their own platform to oppose criticism: How Facebook Wrestled With Scandal: 6 Key Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation
  • There really is no plausible deniability for FB’s execs on their “in-house fake news shop” : Facebook’s Top Brass Say They Knew Nothing About Definers. Don’t Believe Them. So when you need to admit it, you fall back on the ‘we messed up, we’ll do better going forward’ tactic.
  • As Aral Balkan says, that’s the real issue at hand because “Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have the same business model. If Cambridge Analytica can sway elections and referenda with a relatively small subset of Facebook’s data, imagine what Facebook can and does do with the full set.“: We were warned about Cambridge Analytica. Why didn’t we listen?
  • [update] Apparently all the commotion is causing Zuckerberg to think FB is ‘at war‘, with everyone it seems, which is problematic for a company that has as a mission to open up and connect the world, and which is based on a perception of trust. Also a bunker mentality probably doesn’t bode well for FB’s corporate culture and hence future: Facebook At War.

Today I bought this little wooden robot.

Leeuwarden

It’s a Rijkswachter, or State Guard. It derives its name from the source of the wood it is made from.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was closed ten years, from 2003 to 2013, for reconstruction. In that period all objects and art that had been on display were kept safe in wooden crates. In these crates the objects were stored, but also travelled around the world for temporary displays. Studio Hamerhaai, a Dutch design duo based in Haarlem, only uses discarded materials for their work. They acquired all the wooden crates when the objects they held were returned to the exhibition rooms of the Rijksmuseum. They created robots from them in various sizes, called Rijkswachters, in reference to the Rijksmuseum and the previous role the wood they are made of had.

All robots are unique and carry a number on their back, and using that number you can find out exactly which object of the Rijksmuseum collection was stored in its wood.

Leeuwarden

My number 7496 is connected to a three legged silver tea pot with tap, from 1756 and attributed to a silver smith called Nicolaas van Diemen. (A slight disappointment of course that it didn’t house one of the old masters like Rembrandt…. 😉 ) The Rijksmuseum has been digitising most of their artefacts, made them searchable in the beautiful Rijksstudio website (where you can also remix stuff), and release them as re-usable open data. So the number directly links to a photo and description of the artefact.

Most material in Rijksstudio you can download and re-use for e.g. t-shirts, your own postcards or posters, game, video etc. This also allows you to pick any artefact or piece of art from the Rijksmuseum from their online collection and order a Rijkswachter wooden robot, where Dutch artist Annemiek van Duin used part of what you selected to decorate your unique robot, bringing this beautiful project full circle.

Got this amazing sculpture as a birthday gift today. “Strange Bird Totem” (nr 83 of 125) by Jacqueline Schäfer, a Dutch artist (1961). The object is made out of artificial resins. Her work is described as “showing a positive vibe for life in a complex modern society“, which fits me I guess. I had come across it a year or so ago, and liked it a lot. Elmine remembered. Thank you.

As we are in Berlin this week, we had the opportunity to visit the Ai Wei Wei exhibition ‚Evidence’ in the Martin Gropius Bau, just off what used to be Checkpoint C.

We have seen Ai’s work in several places, but never a large collection as this. It helped understand much more of the layers in his work, trying to make sense as well as show the absurdity of the rapid societal changes China has seen in the past few decades, and this being an authoritarian country thus very much blurring the lines between political activism and art.

The police demolishes your studio, they previously invited you to build to help create an art scene in Shanghai? Turn the bricks and other remnants into a monumental installation and call it ’Souvenir from Shanghai’. Or exhibit the hard drives and usb sticks that were confiscated during a search of your home, with the ‚evidence’ stickers attached to them.

Want to discuss the shoulder shrugs caused by the destruction of ancient city neighborhoods in favor of new concrete tower blocks? Destroy and spray paint even more ancient vases to cause an uproar and point out the hypocrisy.

Is the government refusing to discuss how corruption that led to bad quality buildings costs thousands of deaths amongst school children during an earthquake? Collect the names yourself, and use 200 tons (!) of concrete reinforcement bars pulled from the rubble as material for your installations, or turn them into marble as a memorial.

What also very much stood out for me is that the installations we see are merely the endpoint of a long process where the final work’s contours only emerge at the end. They are illogical as a sudden appearance but a logical outcome of the process involved. That process contains investigative journalism, diving into science and history just as much as reflecting on (western) art.

These glimpses of an artist’s process or his studio, the endless trying, the slow slog towards an object, is enormously fascinating to me. We can’t do enough to break the fiction that all the expressions and objects we laud as art are like Athena born ready made from the mind of the artist, but the result of time consuming exploration and hard work.

Thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition both as a window on how this particular artist works, as well as on China, of which we assume much but really know little.