Artist of the Year: Trevor Paglen

As artist's tools go, Trevor Paglen's are unusual: a camera with a 7000mm telescope lens, FOIA requests, a log of airplane N-numbers. An experimental geographer at UC Berkley, Paglen makes art that is equal parts social science and conceptual art, but geared toward a more political task: capturing fleeting glimpses of the U.S. military's "black world."

Hidden behind razor wire, these secret projects—which account for around $30 billion of the government's annual budget—can be gleaned through the few interfaces between the "black" and "white" worlds, whether it's the fences surrounding sites like the Tonopah Test Range or public filings by CIA front businesses. In Torture Taxi, Paglen's book about CIA "extraordinary rendition" flights, he quotes from Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel. "From a drop of water a logician can infer the possibility of an Atlantic or Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other."

One project, a wall covered with code names for thousands of recent black ops, suggests the size of the body of water Paglen's peering into—not to mention its murkiness. With little to go on, we're left to guess what jobs operations like "Rugged Vortex" or "Rivet Rider" are charged with. A similar series presents framed signatures, like that of Colleen Bornt, a board member of Premier Executive Transport. The handwriting is wildly different each time, which is fitting since she's a ghost, a fictional employee of a CIA front company created to conduct torture flights.

The most compelling glimpse "inside" is through Paglen's collection of black-op uniform patches. To be worn only in classified facilities (but not classified themselves), these 100 emblems are a mash-up of pop culture references, military machismo, and secret-society mumbo-jumbo, bearing references to everything from an Insane Clown Posse album cover to the 1972 porn film Behind the Green Door. The patch for a squadron of planes that ran nighttime deliveries between aerospace contractors and secret sites shows a moon and a question mark, with the embroidered acronym "NOYFB"—None of Your Fucking Business.

The closest Paglen gets to more aesthetic contemporary art is with his photos of military bases. Shot across scalding desert from as far away as 20 miles, the photos become abstractions, part Gerhard Richter painting, part Bigfoot sighting. "The classic iconography of mystery is things that almost make sense," Paglen tells me, "but it's crucial they don't make sense.

"They're blurry. They're indistinct," he says, underscoring the main point in his work: "I can tell you what you're seeing, but you shouldn't trust me, either."

My contribution to City Pages "Artists of the Year" issue.


Video: Thomas Hirschhorn on "Doing Art Politically"

Find more videos like this on artreview.com

Art Review runs a multipart series of videos of Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn discussing political artmaking at London's Royal Academy Schools. Above, part I. [Via Blog of Lumpen.]

Earlier: Listen to my 2006 audio interview with Hirschhorn as he installed Cavemanman at the Walker Art Center.

Flying Spaghetti Monster gets write-in in Minnesota Senate race

The UpTake, live streaming the Minnesota State Canvassing Board's meeting on the U.S. Senate recount, just featured a ballot cast for the candidate, Flying Spaghetti Monster. Moments earlier, the board reviewed the infamous vote cast for Lizard People. Minnesota's most famous ballot was designated an overvote. Via the Minnesota Independent.



feelunique.com is offering people the chance to earn 10 pence per wink in return for displaying the company's logo on their eyelid space.
Via Adrants.

Beau Bergeron's Snow Couple

Wooster Collective posts another example of mailbox snow art, linking to its creator (who I was unable to name here), designer Beau Bergeron.

The UN's stalactite ceiling

Off-Center points out the amazing ceiling installation Spanish painter Miquel Barceló created in the UN's Palace of Nations' "Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations" chamber in Geneva. Unveiled Nov. 18, the multicolored stalactites took 13 months to create, using plaster and 100 tons of paint, which was tinted using pigments from all around the world. At 4,600 square feet, the project's nearly $25 million budget -- and where the funds came from -- has come under scrutiny. Design Boom has more.

Google Search: Area 51

It's like found art.



Art made from money

Weburbanist catalogues various art projects using currency as the main medium, from city skylines cut from bills to the piece above by Rirkrit Tiravanija, which offers an ominous (if grammatically strange) analysis of the current economic crisis.

Support Intermedia Arts: Forced to close gallery, lay off all FT staff, art center seeks input

For 35 years, Minneapolis' Intermedia Arts has focused on working to "build understanding among people through art," cosponsoring everything from the B-Girl Be festival of women in hip-hop and the Bent electronic art and music festival to the annual Art Car Parade and last year's series of creative responses to the Republican National Convention called The UnConvention. Its building, covered by an ever-changing mural that mixed realistic, abstract and graffiti-style paintings, telegraphed its dextrous, community-oriented mission. But according to its website, Intermedia has been hit especially hard by the economic downturn: next month, it's laying off all full-time staff and closing its gallery.

"It’s huge. It’s fast. It’s dramatic," reads a message on the group's web site. "But we—our staff, our board, our artists, partners, and funders—all of us, are absolutely committed to ensuring the future of Intermedia Arts."

While the organization has survived largely on philanthropic giving from individuals and foundations, it's now turning to its community to seek help in securing its future. It's seeking input and moral support at the Intermedia Arts’ Community Townhall: Rally the People! at 5:30 pm on Friday, December 19th, and it's looking for donations.

Photo: Aaron Landry


Video: Iraqi journalist chucks shoes at Bush's head

During a "surprise" visit to Iraq, George W. Bush held a press conference, during which an Iraqi journalist called him a "dog" and launched two shoes at the president. The man, who screamed "this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog," was later wrestled to the ground. The BBC, which has the remarkable video, reports that in Arab cultures, the "soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult."

"Dog," I would imagine, comes in a close second.


Hairpiece: Something I wrote about Blagojevich

Pictures below, words here.

Good times are here again...

in Malaysia.

Pac-Man snow art

Pac-Man mailbox art by Beau Bergerson via BIOTV. And on the topic of artful ways to survive winter, Aaron points out Colin's post about the 2nd annual Art Sled Rally, Feb. 7, in Minneapolis' Powderhorn Park. The bear sled below embodies the organizers' definition:
Art Sled: any contraption built to slide down a snowy slope in the most fashionable, ridiculous or artistic way. Outrigger sleds, monster sleds, rocket sleds, tandem sleds, sleds from the High Veldt, leopard-skinned or snake-linked sleds, sleds that fly, hop, or go uphill, and sleds that do a few other things.

Eyeborg: Filmmaker developing eye-socket video camera

"Perhaps our eyes are merely a blank film which is taken from us after our deaths," wrote Jean Baudrillard, "to be developed elsewhere and screened as our life story in some infernal cinema or dispatched as microfilm into the sidereal void."

Maybe, but Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence is considering making the playback happen in this life: Having lost an eye at age 13, he's planning on putting a wireless video camera in his eye socket. But getting a wireless camera -- lens, power supply, circuitry and all -- inside a sealed capsule that can fit into an eyeball-sized hole is proving challenging. But,
Assuming the size, weight and water-tightness issues can be solved, Spence has a vague idea of how he thinks it can work. A camera module will have to be connected to a transmitter inside the prosthetic eye that can broadcast the captured video footage. To boost the signal, he says he can wear another transmitter on his belt. A receiver attached to a hard drive in a backpack could capture that information and then send it to another device that uploads everything to a web site in real time.
On his blog, Spence says he won't be "lifecasting" -- 24/7 live videofeed of his life -- but he'll "use the eye-cam the same way I use a video camera now -- or the same way any filmmaker would use a camera enabled cell phone." He's making a documentary on the project, which likely will include some grisly footage (available at Wired.com) of his eyeball-removal surgery.

Via tumblelikeyougiveadamn. Photo by Steve Mann.


Six feet under... a Wall-Mart parking lot

TCstreetsforpeople points out an odd collection of photos: American cemeteries that are completely surrounded by parking lots. From Roadside Resort, a handful of the sites, which are in Georgia, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Global Seed Vault makes TIME's top inventions list

There's a monumental inclusion in TIME's list of the top 50 inventions this year -- the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened this year in the Norwegian of Svalbard near the north pole. Here's part of what TIME had to say about the so-called Doomsday Vault:
Almost every nation keeps collections of native seeds so local crops can be replanted in case of an agricultural disaster. The Global Seed Vault, opened this year on the far-northern Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, is a backup for the backups. It's badly needed — as many as half the seed banks in developing countries are at risk from natural disasters or general instability. The vault can hold up to 4.5 million samples, which will be kept dry at about 0°F (-18°C). Even if the facility loses power, the Arctic climate should keep the seeds viable for thousands of years. Let's just hope we still like corn then.

Norm and the Giant Boot

Chris Steller found this shot of Sen. Norm Coleman at the Red Wing shoe factory on the senator's site. Readers are submitting captions for it -- and many seem to reference either Coleman's chances in Minnesota's still-ongoing election recount or the fact that the other shoe may drop now that the FBI is investigating allegations that a wealthy donor tried to unlawfully funnel money to Coleman's wife.


Can I haz journalism job?

Depending on how you define "to have," this could be a real opportunity. From Minneapolis Craigslist:
I wish to have one serious Journalist . You must write in perfect way. You should write news about casino. You should uplaod the articles on blog ( if you don't know to do this, you don't worry... (Budget: $30-250, Jobs: Copywriting)


Scanning the earth: Scott Nedrelow's Palisade Head

Scrolling down this post you start to get an idea of what it's like approaching Palisade Head, an immersive 65 x 74-inch print by Minneapolis-based artist Scott Nedrelow. Since I first saw it in his Northeast Minneapolis studio last year, and through many revisitings of a detail of it online, I'm more drawn to it -- and into it.

Created while Scott lived in the northern Minnesota town of Ely, where he says he moved to have "a Walden kind of experience," the image presents, in 1:1 scale, a plot of earth, captured with a flatbed scanner with its lid removed. While he officially says the work is a "reflection of growing anxiety between culture and nature," an idea he picked up from his advisor at the Chicago Institute of Arts, Kathryn Hixson, he acknowledges he was also... playing. "I was curious about what would happen," he says. "It's a device that normally is used for taking easy pictures of other pictures-- so the question was, hey, what happens if you just use it to take pictures?"

He wrote me in an email:
From there it became clear that as a camera it's not very well suited to do much except pretty flat surfaces, so I started scanning the ground in overlapping segments and piecing hundreds of them together. The resulting image and print is actual size, which isn't usually a feature of photography. As large actual-size prints, they start to get object-like qualities, which is why I like to show them without frames. It's more like a an actual-size map, but it's not a useful map-- it doesn't show a large area like satellite maps or blow up a view that could be examined at more of a "Honey, I shrunk the kids" level of fascination. It's just a segment of ground presented actual size on a wall, something that can be ordinarily observed. So there's a deadpan poetic element, it becomes significant because it doesn't show anything that can't already be easily seen. This goes back to the anxiety between culture and nature when you look at a magazine like Dwell and you see people making tiny little houses on concrete pylons in the middle of nowhere to minimize the effect on the land. The question is why is that an impulse right now?
Illuminated by the scanner's bulbs, the closeup view of lichen, moss, twigs and leaves is remarkable in its detail and realness while, weirdly also seeming unreal, like too-perfect plastic flowers at a Wal-Mart. And the depth of field, perhaps two or three inches, provides a view I've rarely had of nature -- face planted firmly in flora -- yet without the scents of nature I'd expect. That culture/nature thing again.

But the personal meaning for me is about something more immediate. With all there is to worry about these days -- from imponderables like war, financial crisis and elections to localized fretting about relationships or job security -- losing oneself in the intricate geometry of lichen rhizomes or the curve of a tiny white flower peeking out from a field the green -- is good medicine.

Fugazi frontman on consumerism, community, children

In These Times interviews Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, Minor Threat and his current side project, The Evens.

On music in ads:
Right now, the conventional thinking has it that the only way to have a music career is to do it with advertisements. That is total bullshit. The way to have a music career is to make good music and then people will listen to that.

The people who sell things have an attitude that goes like this: ‘Let’s take the music and place it with our ad. That way, people will associate the deep relationship they have with music with our product.’

This is not where music was supposed to end up. It’s a tragedy that musicians have come to this sort of thinking.
On the branding of childhood:
I am, of course, disgusted by mass marketing to children. You can imagine my horror when I discovered that it’s virtually impossible to buy a diaper—which is essentially a shit bag—without a goddamn corporate cartoon figure on it. It’s deeply disturbing.
On living in community:
I don’t mean necessarily living in a commune, but rather, I believe in the value of proximity to other people and having an open-door policy. The open-door policy being, an unlocked door may result in the occasional devil, but a locked door insists on a thousand angels walking past.
On a turning point:
Right before Embrace [the short-lived band MacKaye formed in 1985], I thought about all the singing I was doing and the anger and protest of my work, and I thought, ‘What is the actual thrust of this work? What is it that I am trying to achieve?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m trying to achieve happiness for people in the world.’



New video by Amnesty International on 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Via Oscio.

Food activists call for a "sustainable Secretary of Agriculture"

Eighty-eight food and farming activists -- including Michael Pollan, Francis Moore Lappé, Bill McKibben, Alice Water and Wendell Berry -- have sent a letter to Barack Obama urging the appointment of a sustainability-minded Secretary of Agriculture. The top six suggestions include Minnesota Secretary of State, who worked at the Institute for Ag and Trade Policy. More here.

Monument to the first person killed by a train

Cynical-C's post on the first person killed by a robot (at a Michigan Ford plant in 1979) reminds me of an odd statue I saw in southwest London as a study-abroad student in '92. Despite the times its subject lived in, the late 1700s and early 1800s, British statesman William Husskisson is depicted in a toga. The reason for the commemoration, according to our tour guide? Husskisson was the first widely reported case in history of a person being killed by a train. And it happened on the inaugural run of Robert Stephenson's Rocket, the first "modern" locomotive, on the Liverpool/Manchester line:
While attending the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Huskisson rode down the line in the same train as the Duke of Wellington. At Parkside, close to Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire, the train stopped to observe a cavalcade on the adjacent line. Several members of the Duke's party stepped onto the trackside to observe more closely. Huskisson went forward to greet the Duke. As Huskisson was exiting his car, the locomotive Rocket approached on the parallel track. Huskisson was unable to get out of the engine's way in time, and his left leg was crushed by it.

After the accident, the wounded Huskisson was taken by a train (driven by George Stephenson himself) to Eccles, where he died a few hours later. The monument where his remains are buried is the centrepiece of St James Cemetery, Liverpool.
A fact that our tour guide apparently got wrong: The statue of a Roman wasn't intended as a likeness of Husskisson, but merely commemorates his passing.

Here's a video on the statue that dubs Huskisson the "first rail fatality of the steam age."

VW cops Magritte, Dalí

I hate when they do that. New VW ads by DDB in Germany.


Advent Conspiracy: Give Christmas presence

Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas every year. What it'd cost to ensure clean water for everyone in the world: $10 billion. What are you doing this Christmas?

A new video from the Advent Conspiracy, a religious group that uses the holiday tagline, "Give Presence." Via Adfreak.

I was 14, the last time consumer confidence was this low

Consumer confidence has hit a 23-year low:
The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index has fallen from -17 in mid-December 2007 to -54 today. En route it's matched or surpassed its previous low, set in 1992, eight times this year.

Indeed the CCI, figured on a scale of +100 to -100, has been at or below -50 for an unprecedented four weeks straight. And its average in the current recession to date, -40, is worse than its average in either of the past two recessions, +3 in March to November 2001 and -33 during the deeper recession from July 1990 to March 1991.

The index is based on Americans' ratings of the economy, their personal finances and the buying climate. Ninety-three percent now say the national economy's in bad shape and 58 percent rate their own finances negatively, each matching its worst on record. Eighty percent call it a bad time to buy things, 2 points from its record.

Here's the tracking since 1985:
Another wince-inducing stat: job cuts in November were 61 percent higher than in October -- and 148 percent higher than November 2007.


A smokin' good read

TankBooks announces "a series of books designed to mimic cigarette packs – the same size, packaged in flip-top cartons with silver foil wrapping and sealed in cellophane." From GOOD's call for more artistically packaged novels.

The Simpson's visit the Mapple Store

The Simpson's slam Mapple, er, Apple. Via Adrants.

The Moving Forest at Urban Play 2008

For Amsterdam's Urban Play festival (Sept. 21-Nov. 2, 2008, created by Droog Design), The Netherlands' NL Architects created a forest of shopping carts:
The Moving Forest are 100 trees strapped into 100 shopping-carts lurking around in an urban environment blocking peoples way and forcing passers to act on them. According to NL’s Gen Yamamoto the idea comes from a story he heard as a child about a forest where the trees move at night so that people would loose there way and could never get out.

After the period of 6 weeks when the festival is over, the trees will be sold on to citizens and find a new home.
rebel:art has more images, as does Urban Play curator Scott Burnham, whose entire Flickr collection is remarkable.

Via Urban Prankster.