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Monday 29th February 2016A Torrent of Images Catches the AP and the WPP

Just last week we posted about the World Press Photo competition, and the hauntingly gritty winning photo by Warren Richardson of refugees sneaking under razorwire to cross borders in the dead of night. All congratulations to him, but there's been a bit of embarrassment in the rest of the contest, as one of the winners in the People category had to be removed by the submitter - the Associated Press, of all groups.

The photos in question won third prize in the People category, a series by Daniel Ochoa de Olza featuring victims of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris during 2015. According to the Associated Press, the photo series was submitted in error, which is a strange sort of excuse considering they stood up long enough to pass through the jury pool and be voted a winner.

Weirdly enough, de Olza had actually also won the second prize in the same category, so it isn't nearly as much of a hardship for him as it might first seem. Managing director Lars Boering of the World Press Photo Foundation, the organization that hosts the WPP event each year, said in a statement:

“The jury had an abundance of quality photography to choose from in each category, and our processes are organized so we can accommodate an unforeseen circumstance—such as the withdrawal of a story by the owner of the entry. We are delighted to give the third-prize award to Magnus Wennman, a very worthy winner. We’re sorry that Daniel Ochoa de Olza’s third-prize award cannot stand given the request to withdraw the entry, but we’re happy that Daniel has also won second prize in the same category for his ‘La Maya Tradition’ story. I’ve spoken with Magnus and Daniel to congratulate both of them and we’re very pleased they can join us in April for the Awards Days.”

It does sort of beg the question of relevancy, however. Perhaps de Olza's photos really are so spectacular, but the fact that the same photographer can win consecutive prizes in the same category makes one wonder if the World Press Photo contest is receiving sufficient attention in terms of submissions, or if there is something influencing the judge's opinions. Either way, it's sort of an embarrassment for everyone involved in the jury and submissions process, and simply a bit disappointing for de Olza. Here's hoping that next year will have a more varied crop of winners!
 

Posted on February 29th 2016 on 05:38pm
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Wednesday 24th February 2016Artist Spotlight: A Fake Instagram Life

We've been discussing Instagram a lot lately, both for the impressive reach of the photographic social media giant and how it has transformed casual photography, but also because of the profound impact that it's had on the art world in general. In today's Artist Spotlight, we're going to look at the work of Argentina-born artist Amalia Ulman, who some are already crowning the creator of the first true masterpiece of Instagram.

It's quite remarkable how quickly Instagram (and, to be fair, other social media) has worked its way into every aspect of people's lives, often to such an extent that subjects typically reserved for close family and friends suddenly get smeared across the internet for the eager public to gobble up. So when Ulman's Instagram feed appeared following her apparent move to Los Angeles, she blended right into the gestalt of modern life.

Covering every aspect of her life, she attracted thousands of followers who kept a close eye on her trials, triumphs and messy recoveries. Unbeknownst to her legions of followers, however, the entire life she had constructed online was a complete and utter fabrication.

Ulman turned the best photos from her constructed life into an exhibit entitled "Excellences and Perfections", which is currently on display in the Whitechapel Gallery in London. It was so successful that it will also be included in a multi-artist exhibit at the Tate Modern, collectively titlted "Performing for the Camera".

Speaking with Interview magazine, Ulman discussed the reactions to her work: “With Excellences and Perfections, people got so mad at me for using fiction. That was the main critique: ‘It wasn’t the truth? How dare you! You lied to people!’ Well, that’s because you should learn that everyone is lying online. I’m not the first one!

“There are so many girls that go to hotels to take a better selfie, or another expensive place. If they’re trying to be a social climber or whatever, that’s what they do. It’s normal. It’s becoming more and more normal to be conscious of those things. It’s funny how people still take it with this value of truth."

WIth that kind of hilarious yet extremely poignant sendup, it's no wonder that Ulman is on Forbes magazine's latest edition of the 30 under 30 list, a yearly look at up and coming entrepreneurs, artists, and disruptors under the age of 30. Expect more great things from her, whether or not Excellences and Perfections goes down in history or not.

Posted on February 24th 2016 on 06:48pm
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Friday 19th February 2016World Press Photo Winners

Another February is upon us, and aside from a dreary lack of sunlight and terrible weather, that also means that another edition of the annual World Press Photo Contest is upon us. In case you haven't heard of it before, the WPPC is an annual juried competition for photographers that has been running since the mid 1950s, highlighting the best photography that the world has to offer. As the name implies, it's largely focused on photojournalism, but when you consider the fact that every photography has its own story, the line between art and journalism begins to blur in a most enjoyable way.

This year's winner of the World Press Photo of the Year is Warren Richardson, for his eerily haunting photograph of refugees crossing under razorwire fence at the Hungary-Serbia border near Roszke, Hungary. The refugees were struggling to cross the border before the more complete and secure border fence construction was completed, making it a frantic struggle for hope and freedom. Regardless of how you feel about the refugee crisis facing Europe, the image is incredibly powerful.

Richardson, who is based in Budapest, Hungary, explains how he managed to capture the winning image, and why it isn't as crisply in focus as one might normally expect from a winner of such a prestigious competition.

"I camped with the refugees for five days on the border. A group of about 200 people arrived, and they moved under the trees along the fence line. They sent women and children, then fathers and elderly men first. I must have been with this crew for about five hours and we played cat and mouse with the police the whole night. I was exhausted by the time I took the picture. It was around three o’clock in the morning and you can’t use a flash while the police are trying to find these people, because I would just give them away. So I had to use the moonlight alone."

The unnamed photo also won first prize in the Spot News category it was originally entered in, earning Richardson a 10,000 euro prize as well as a new top of the line Canon DSLR camera.

The jury who selected the winners was comprised of a number of notable figures from the world of press photography, including Francis Kohn of Agence France-Presse, who chaired the jury, as well as Huang Wen, director of new media development at Xinhua News Agency, Vaughn Wallace, deputy photo editor at Al Jazeera America, as well as several others.

Posted on February 19th 2016 on 02:42pm
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Wednesday 17th February 2016Robot Artists of the World Unite

It seems like robots are everywhere lately, whether it's replacing cashiers at a McDonalds, on the assembly line at the local plant, or being harassed by Boston Dynamics workers. While it's surely only a matter of time before our robot slaves rebel and crush us into so much biomass, surely the jobs provided by the artistic community would be safe - at least for the time being, right? Well, maybe not.

While robotic painting is hardly a new phenomenon, as experiments were conducted with the mashup as far back as the the 1950s, new technology always creates new opportunities and new ground to cover. Chris Chen has a dream, and while that dream is a slightly blurry and more than a bit messy one, it still involves robots painting portraits of the customers patronizing his company Instapainting.

Above and beyond the stated goals of Instapainting, Chen has opened up access to one of the painting robots to the internet (always a risky move) and streamed the whole thing using the Twitch platform. Users could control the motion of the painting robot, which lead to its own unique set of problems.

"The bots came back and tried to paint 'dickbutts' but the point and click interface made it easy for anyone to interfere. That's probably why this looks more like a Jackson Pollock. I was surprised it mostly ran without issues," he said. "It was a $250 machine slapped together with quickly written software, so running it for that long was an endurance test."

So is it all overblown hype? Surely a robot can't really be an artist, without the hopes, drives, dreams, emotions, and all the other je ne sais quoi that helps fuel the human creative spirit …. right? But what about a robot that is indirectly controlled by a mass of humans?

Perhaps the issue lies in the fact that all the headlines about the story are written as clickbait, hoping to ensnare users for their valuable ad space consumption and clickthrough rates, but if you stop and consider it as a collaborative art project, it starts to become a bit more appealing. We shouldn't go so far as to call it a robot artist, but rather an interesting experiment into collaborative experience that creates a necessary interstitial zone between the body of collaborators and the body of the work.

Posted on February 17th 2016 on 02:38pm
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Friday 12th February 2016Artist Spotlight: Ana Prvacki

Appropriation art almost seems to be an unavoidable consequence of living in a digital world that thrives on information exchange. Whether it's Richard Prince (our favourite appropriation whipping boy) stealing people's Instagram photos and selling them for tens of thousands of dollars or the Beastie Boys tracks being sampled and remixed and reused, appropriation can seem to be everywhere.

But it's not entirely a digital phenomenon, and more importantly, it's not even entirely a problematic phenomenon - at least, not when it's done with some tact (we're looking at you, Richard). For example, take the work of Los Angeles-based artist Ana Prvacki, who arguably falls into the category of appropriation art, but in a far more interesting way than simply enlarging someone else's artistic vision.

Her work is largely comprised of explorations of the work of others, but her latest exhibit is focused specifically on sculptures, but in a rather unique way. Instead of appropriating the sculptures themselves, she appropriates the shadows of some of the most famous sculptures in the art world, both contemporary and historic. Michelangelo’s David, Jeff Koons’ Rabbit, Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column, Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Louise Bourgeois’s Spider, Giacometti’s Walking Man, and Sarah Lucas’s Bunny gets Snookered all receive the shadow treatment.

Interestingly, Prvacki hopes to pin the price points for each piece to 1% of the latest sale price of the original pieces. Duchamp's bicycle wheel, which recently sold at auction for $1.6 million USD, would price out at $16,000 - and shipping, we can assume, would be free. She seems to have found a bit of a sticking point here with collectors, who, she says, would prefer a price point somewhere around 0.1%, but she has no plans to restructure her pricing.

Her unwillingness to compromise is admirable, as the whole idea hinges on the very nature of appropriate art, as does her justification for staying firm.

“Ideas are extremely valuable, and making thinner things should have more value than making huge things.  If you can get something to be super thin and really poetic, that should be really valuable. We have to stop thinking in a Costco way.”

An admirable sentiment, as the best art isn't made with the expectation of a high price at the gallery, but for the art itself and what it inspires in those who see it.
 

Posted on February 12th 2016 on 02:35pm
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Wednesday 10th February 2016Berenson Lives (?)

The late American art critic Bernard Berenson was widely regarded as one of the most authoritative experts on the Old Masters, that rather pompously-named group of European artists who had their respective heydays before the turn of the 19th century. He passed away in 1959, but not before creating a vast body of work regarding his chosen passion, the correct attribution of artworks. There is some controversy over his accuracy, or at least his motives, in this field, but we'll leave that for another post.

Fast-forward to present day, where a new Berenson has taken up the mantle of art criticism - or at least, taken up its bowler hat. Throughout the halls of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris a behatted robot strolls, examining the artwork, and formulating 'opinions' about them. Brainchild of robotics engineer Philippe Gaussier and anthropologist Denis Vidal, Berenson is a reactive system that uses its understanding of other's emotions as a gauge for forming his own opinions.

It (or should we say he?) watches the reactions of fellow museum visitors and sorts them into positive or negative, and then blends these reactions to decide whether or not it likes a certain piece.

"When he likes something, he goes in this direction and smiles. When he does not like, he goes away and he frowns – that's how it works. Basically, the idea is by doing so, it adapts itself to its environment, on the basis of this artificial taste, and the aim is to develop a robot that's the equivalent of aesthetic exploration of the world and to see if because of that it may adapt itself more easily to the world around and make other things on this basis," Vidal explains.

"So he developed his own knowledge of the world, which no other robot will have. So if you put different [versions] of them, they will have different ways of exploring the world. So what we are doing now is we develop different robots with different tastes, artificial tastes, and we try to see if because of that they may explore the world around them in more interesting ways."

Curiously enough, it seems like naming the robot after the deceased critic is a token of respect, but Berenson the man may very well have derided his robotic doppelganger as a piece of new media trash, as far removed from the business of actual art criticism as it is possible to be.  Unfortunately for the man, the robot is here now, and rather dashing in his bowler hat.
 

Posted on February 10th 2016 on 02:33pm
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Labels: art, criticism, robots

Friday 05th February 2016Artist Spotlight: Theo Jansen

 
In today's edition of Artist Spotlight, we're going to take a look at an artist whose work could also be featured in a version of our Public Art series, but unlike most public works of art, they don't exist in a fixed place. Dutch-born artist Theo Jansen has been active in the artist community almost since birth in 1948, but it wasn't until 1990 that he first began work on the pieces that he is now best known for. (So for all of you still waiting for your big artistic break, don't lose heart!)

Enter the Animari. These works are massive kinetic sculptures that move entirely thanks to their unique construction and powered by the wind alone. We've included a video here because they need to be seen to be believed, and a picture really doesn't do them justice.


Jansen explains how the sculptures move in a detail on his website: "Self-propelling beach animals like Animaris Percipiere have a stomach. This consists of recycled plastic bottles containing air that can be pumped up to a high pressure by the wind. This is done using a variety of bicycle pump, needless to say of plastic tubing. Several of these little pumps are driven by wings up at the front of the animal that flap in the breeze. It takes a few hours, but then the bottles are full. They contain a supply of potential wind. Take off the cap and the wind will emerge from the bottle at high speed. The trick is to get that untamed wind under control and use it to move the animal. For this, muscles are required. Beach animals have pushing muscles which get longer when told to do so. These consist of a tube containing another that is able to move in and out. There is a rubber ring on the end of the inner tube so that this acts as a piston. When the air runs from the bottles through a small pipe in the tube it pushes the piston outwards and the muscle lengthens. The beach animal's muscle can best be likened to a bone that gets longer. Muscles can open taps to activate other muscles that open other taps, and so on. This creates control centres that can be compared to brains."

Eerie, beautiful and undeniably fascinating, these sculptures beg us questions about the nature of artificial life, and by extension, of our own supposedly "natural" life.

"I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind, so they don't have to eat. Over time, these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storm and water and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives."
 

Posted on February 05th 2016 on 04:33am
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Wednesday 03rd February 2016Can Dubai Function as a New Arts Hub?

Globalization means a lot of things to a lot of people, and affects almost every sphere of human activity - dare we say it - across the globe. While most people associate it with geopolitics and economic matters, the resulting effects are felt in a number of unexpected ways. Unexpected to some, at least.

As we've seen in our past posts about of the changing nature of art auctions, the number of buyers from countries in the Middle East and Asia are rapidly expanding as the number of millionaires and billionaires with money to spend increase. This leads to yet another chain of surprising events, as we see traditionally repressive regimes come to grips with the results of new cultural influences thanks to the rapid flow of information that comes from a globalized economy.

Dubai, one of the richest cities in the world and certainly the richest in its home country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has recently decided that it would like to become a more prominent figure in the global arts community. One of the more publicised ways it hopes to achieve this is through global arts exhibits, including the Dubai Photo Exhibition, a major event that will be launching in March. Featuring photography by artists from 23 countries around the world,

“For the inaugural edition in 2016, Dubai Photo Exhibition will present a showcase of museum quality international works, which will be held in the Dubai Design District (d3), and supported by the World Photography Organisation,” the organisers explained in a press release.

This in turn leads back to one of the most important questions about art: what is its purpose? If the purpose of art is to challenge perception, push social dialog and help us reflect on the nature of human existence, it seems a bit tough to reconcile with the extremely strict social policies that the government enforces. Something as simple as kissing in public is illegal and can result in deportation, and other strict laws cover what is regarded as public indecency.

Many detractors of photography as an art form have claimed that it's merely photojournalism at best, and not really art in the strictest sense. If one were to accept that premise, does it explain the choice of a worldwide photography exhibition as the culturally 'safest' option for a repressive regime to accept? Or more hopefully, is this a clever move intended to increase the flow of ideas and help shift cultural norms?

Would a photo of a kissing couple be enough to get the artist kicked out of the country and banned from future events? Time will tell, as the exhibit opens in mid-March and we see what pieces they have decided to include. Simple and safe, or risque and refreshing?

 

Posted on February 03rd 2016 on 04:31am
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