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2007's Best: Culture
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

Regine's posts consistently reframe the way I see global culture. They're all pretty amazing, but these are three of my favorites:

The Morrinho Project at the Venice Biennale

Morrinho means 'little hill' in Portuguese and alludes to the shantytowns, or favela, located on the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro.

In 1998, kids built up a miniature reproduction of their favela (Pereirão, perched above the upper class Laranjeiras neighbourhood) using bricks and other materials left-over from building their own house. The model covers 300 square meters, and is inhabited by scavenged toys (plastic cars, little figurines carrying AK-47s or a ball, etc.) which are used to re-create scenes of everyday life in a favela: from dance events to clashes between gang members.

Fame came to Morrinho in 2001 when filmmaker Fábio Gavião put together a documentary about the mini favela. Since then portions of the brick favela have traveled all over the world, the latest stop is at the Giardini of the Venice Biennale.

CRUMB: An Interview with Sarah Cook

Regine: What are the conditions required to achieve "upstart media bliss"?

Sarah: Tea and cookies and wifi? As a curator, keeping up with the times but not “dancing the novelty hustle” (as Barbara London has said); having a sense of history is important. Challenging the system – be it the art system, the museum, or the format of the exhibition – and not being afraid to take a risk (generally being an upstart). At the same time, remembering to take care of the artist and the work, take care of other people and your ethics. Creating situations for contemplation and reflection (bliss doesn't have to be monumental, it might only last a minute, but a minute worth remembering).

Interview with Anthony Dunne, Head of Design Interactions at RCA in London

RD: Your installation about future energy sources at the Science Museum in London is extremely surprising. The scenarios you picture there are deeply grounded in scientific research, yet they are miles away from our dreams of solar-powered cars and hydrogen-based cities: "poo" is envisioned as a resource, a radio is fuelled by blood kept in cute teddy-shaped pouches, and churches, school, even families are developing their own energy brand. Why didn't you follow the trend and show more positive and bright visions of the future?

AD: The exhibit is aimed at children between the ages of 7 and 12. Everywhere they look they will see images showing how bright our technological future will be once we embrace new energy sources like Hydrogen. But things are not so simple, with every new technology there are of course other consequences -- economic, cultural and ethical. With this project we wanted to encourage children to think about the implications of 3 different technologies, all real, but some more likely to happen than others. The first is Hydrogen, here we wanted to deal with economics by portraying a scenario children could relate to -- having to produce a certain amount of hydrogen in order to get their pocket money. Human Poo as energy was about a major cultural shift where something once thought of as dirty would become valuable, so people would want to keep it, disconnect themselves from the sewage system and even offer it as a gift. And with the blood scenario, we wanted to show that often, reality is stranger than fiction, there is a growing area of research looking at how microbial fuel cells can be used to make self-sufficient robots and other products; pacemakers that run on the blood in our own bodies for example. In this case we wanted children to think about ethics: where would the blood come from? Of course we slightly exaggerated everything to make them more engaging.

RD: Why do you think that biotechnology, synthetic biology or nanotechnology, like electronics, are areas in which design should play a role?

AD: All of these technologies, separately, and in combination, are going to have a huge impact on our lives in the near future. I think it’s important that designers, start thinking about how to get involved. It's not just about new skills or a new medium, but very different ways of thinking. What does it mean to design living or semi-living materials and products? It's important too that design, with its powerful visualisation skills, makes abstract concepts tangible and discussable. It can help us debate different futures before they happen. Otherwise the 'future' is just going to happen to us and the products and services we get will be driven by economic and technological factors rather than human needs, let alone desires.


Sarah's paraSITE: A Decade of Urban Intervention

Michael Rakowitz traveled to Jordan in the mid-90s on a study program where he focused in part on the nomadic tradition of the Bedouins, and the architecture of their tents. When he returned to Boston, where he was a student at MIT, the presence of the homeless population in the city triggered a quandary for him regarding the contrast of a nomadic lifestyle by tradition versus by necessity. The nomadic patterns of the urban homeless, particularly in the cold months, were dictated by the location of heating vents releasing exhaust from HVAC systems inside houses and buildings. Many of these systems had been designed like boxes, such that a person could sleep on top of the vent and stay warm; but viewing this as a problem, the city had begun installing vertical vents which slanted downward off the building, making it impossible to rest on them.

When Rakowitz spotted a man standing beneath one of these vents catching some heat on top of his head, an idea struck him, and so began a decade of public, participatory intervention. Rakowitz would find a way to transfer the waste heat and contain it in a small, collapsible shelter which would inflate upon attachment to the blowing vent. His first stab at heated street architecture emerged as a sketch of a tented bubble attached to the vent with a tube, all of which would be made from readily available materials -- in this case, black plastic garbage bags. He took the idea for a test-drive with a small crew of homeless men who he often passed on the way to class. "This," Rakowitz said, "was my design's first real critique."

Turning the Camera on Nollywood

Franco Sacchi, an Italian filmmaker living in Boston, has just produced a remarkable film about Nollywood. Nollywood is the third largest film industry in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood. The Nigerian film industry makes 2000 films a year, as of 2006, which means that every week, 40 to 50 films are being made on the streets of Lagos and in cities throughout West Africa. The industry has created thousands of jobs… and it’s happened against all odds in a country where it can be very difficult to live and work.


Sarah's Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art

Most of the time when we cover art on Worldchanging, we focus in particular on critical and activist art -- work that the artist utilizes as a vehicle for cultural commentary and sometimes a call to action, art which is socially engaged and even participatory. Artwork that doesn't do these things, in artspeak, might be called discursive -- ambling around pointed issues, provoking dialogue, but ultimately yielding no useful result, as suggested in Victor Margolin's opening essay. The obvious counterargument is that art by its very definition need not be useful; utility emerges from other creative fields like design and architecture and even landscaping and urban planning. But as social and environmental issues become more and more pervasive in cultural conversations, and sustainability becomes everyone's concern, the lines between these fields start to blur -- practitioners of "fine art" no longer stand isolated in a realm of reflection and suggestion, and specialists in other disciplines often undertake projects that gravitate towards and into the art world.

This evolving hybridization has invited visual art out of the gallery and museum, and into public and unconventional spaces. Most of the art we talk about is not only critical, but also usually situated outside of traditional art venues and often in site-specific circumstances. Does that mean that "activist" art has exited the building for good, leaving only "inactive" works inside? Can socially-engaged, participatory and interventionist art retain its impact within the walls of a museum?


Micki's The Green Man

Tens of thousands of people are packing up their camping gear, putting the last touches on their art projects and costumes and planning their journeys to the Nevada desert for a week of unmitigated self-expression and revelry. Burning Man has long been the world’s largest Leave No Trace event. While there’s no denying the fundamental unsustainability of erecting a temporary city in the desert for one week each year and then burning much of it to the ground, the culture of the community breeds a deep respect for the desert that temporarily hosts Black Rock City each year.

The art theme of Burning Man 2006 was "The Future: Hope and Fear" and participants pondered what the future might look like to them. 2007 is the year of The Green Man: recognizing our place in the ecosystem and creating a sustainable future.

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