Issue #46, 2014

Saving The World... From A Gesamtkunstwerk: The Art Of Staging Situations Of Real Transformations
Ovidiu Țichindeleanu in Conversation with Klaus Schafler

Klaus Schafleris Vienna based artist whose work focuses on the notion of public sphere and to phenomena of transformation in different geopolitical frameworks, suburban settings and disputed landscapes. His installations, video projects and research-oriented collaborations try to elaborate the ambivalences and fictions of the complicated relationship between micro aspects and “world“ as relational terms.


Ovidiu ȚichindeleanuπThe premise of the recent Korean science-fiction filmSnowpiercer (2013) is that an experiment to cool off global warming by injecting the clouds with a newly invented chemical substance goes off the rails by throwing the Earth into an age of permanent winter. Now, if the idea of bombing the clouds away to ensure a sunny day for the parade is rather familiar to East Europeans, it came as a surprise to learn that cloud-painters actually exist, that the idea of injecting the clouds with white stuff is a thing in the hard-science of climate scientists. No wonder that geoengineering has also inspired a great deal of conspiracies; one of these sounds like this: global warming is advancing faster than we feel it, and the occult powers which are profiting from the destruction of the world are hiding the gravity of the situation by painting the clouds white with aerosol spray and jet stream manipulation. Can you tell me how did you come across geoengineering, and describe briefly some of the mega-projects designed to save the world or manipulate the climate that have intrigued you, and your particular approach in connecting art, science and society?

Klaus Schafler∫For years my interests have often focused on the relations between reality, real life and politics, on the fictions of upcoming socio-political developments on the globe. In 2010 I discovered in an article from a German newspaper that there were plans to control the snowfall over Moscow, banning it from the Russian capital by blasting clouds from the sky through methods developed by climate scientists. Thus, airplanes were flying over Moscow spraying silver iodide into clouds, ensuring that all precipitation falls before it reaches the capital. Former mayor Luzhkov communicated these actions as a cost saving measure, dealing with the ongoing financial crisis of the city by reducing the costs of snow removal. At least one such real-world experiment was conducted, attempting to manipulate the local and regional weather patterns, which caused a lot of troubles with snow in Moscow´s surrounding countryside, as well as protests, especially from international civil society groups. This was more or less the starting point in trying to look deeper into the mechanisms behind the Moscow case, into the historical context, current status and world views associated with this type of approaches attempting to manipulate nature and the weather.

While preventing snowfall is rather new, securing sunshine for political representation is already a usual habit, and not just in Moscow. For instance, the Chinese government used cloud seeding weather manipulation technology in Beijing, just before the 2008 Olympic Games, in order to clear the air of pollution. The result was two hours of sunshine and less smog during the opening event.

These technologies were intensively researched already during Cold War times, including by the US and a few other countries. “Who controls the weather controls the world.“ For instance in 1967–1968, during the Vietnam War, as weather warfare measure, the US Weather Bureau seeded the clouds over the Ho Chi Min trail, in order to increase the rainfall in that area. Weather warfare was later prohibited by the Geneva Convention in 1976.

In general, political and economic power structures are enforcing such interventions onto the climate and weather, although there are many risks, collateral effects of unintentional design, side-effects and impacts on nature, people and the public sphere, besides the geo-political implications to be expected, such as new North-South conflicts. Now, while weather manipulation technologies try to manipulate local or regional weather patterns, geoengineering technologies are hacking the entire planet in order to slow down or even reverse our civilizations’ impact on the climate and environment. Climate change is countered by cooling the planet.

I became more and more interested in the socio-political context, the ambivalent character and the dangers of these large-scale interventions in the global climate system. Here are a few examples of such technologies, mostly high-tech, often bordering on science fiction: cooling the planet by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through ironing the oceans, or by using synthetic trees (i.e., capturing the carbon from the surrounding air by using resin branches); reducing the solar radiation on the globe (Solar Radiation Management) by painting the streets and roofs white, or by seeding clouds with vaporized seawater coming from spray vessels that drive around the oceans, or by whiting the clouds (the Albedo effect) in order to enhance reflectivity, i.e. to reflect more sunlight back into space in order to cool the planet off. The same effect of cooling the planet can be observed after a volcano eruption as ash particles floating in the air prevent sunbeams getting through and onto the earth surface.

Another more low-tech example referring to the Albedo effect was the real world experiment of sociologist Eduardo Gold, of painting the peaks of the Andes with an environment friendly lime and egg-white paint white, by local people employed for the job, in order to protect the glacier ice from disappearing and thus improving the availability of water over the entire year for the close-by mountainous villages. Certain plants could also be developed for local cooling Albedo effects. For instance, Aloe Vera with its particularly reflecting leaf surface and structures. Some scientists argue that large scale crop plants or genetically modified bioengineered designer plants and crops could generate 1% temperature reduction.

Platforms such as the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, try to provide the world with an up-to-date scientific view on the current state of knowledge on global warming and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts. Based on these scientific facts, governments are required to implement specific objectives, policies and regulations. If this topic is climbing up on the international political agenda, this can be seen as a sign of urgency due to local effects and concerns (including about climate refugees), or as a strategic and economic decision for a green zero-emission economy. Political ambition can strengthen and support the efforts of numerous local and global civil society groups, social movements, activists and representatives, from initiatives to win the battle for renewable energies and the green economy, to other issues of climate justice on the globe. In the IPCC’s latest climate change Assessment Report in 2013, the final paragraph of the Summary for Policymakers includes a bullet point referring to proposals for deliberately altering climate systems. In the view of many critics of geoengineering, like the ETC group, this could be an alarming sign for actual future applications of geoengineering technologies.

I think that it is important to approach these issues not only through technology or science, but rather through transdisciplinary practices, by reflecting on the socio-political and geo-political framework and contexts. My approach includes research, interviews with scientists and diverse stakeholders in the context, in order to develop interventions and installations, which are often participatory and collaborative, building up a critical and vivid archive, an open laboratory able to narrate facts and fictions within something one could call a pseudo-laboratory situation. Drawing visions and speculations of an imagined reality and a future that is already taking shape underlines the need for sustainability and climate justice on the globe.

πIn recent times, Bill Gates seemed to switch his philantropic non-capitalist interests from the issue of AIDS to geoengineering. One of the Google executives has also talked about building a fleet of green megaships from which to raise the global presence of Google to a new level. The Guardianalso hosted a public debate on geoengineering. I feel the need to narrow the distance from the height of such dreamy projects of big capitalists with some concreteness. Since you work intimately with scientists, could you tell us more about your approach with scientists, maybe give us an example of your interaction with scientists and their working environment, for instance in relation to the project of the synthetic tree?

∫ In 2010 I found out that the Royal Society of London organized a scientific conference with the occasion of its 300th birthday, dedicated to the topic of “Geoengineering –taking control of our planet’s climate“. I attended this conference in order to get a high-end info on this topic at first hand and to meet scientists that work in this field.

I checked the list of speakers in advance and contacted a few of them asking for an interview. Five responded that they were interested to meet me for an interview and to become part of my art-based research project.

I wanted to find out more about: What drives these people? What are their worldviews? Which concepts and ideas are they following? On which (historical or philosophical) concepts do they build on? In which socio-political contexts are they researching and developing their projects and interventions? What is their position regarding the subjectivity of their scientific work, especially when it comes to terms like scientific truth?

As an essential part of my project I conducted video-interviews with these experts on the above mentioned questions, in the very specific working context of the person interviewed. I was really surprised that the scientists took from their time in order to talk about their view on the relation of art and science, the relation of fact and fiction in their work, the economical problems linked with doing research with very often no results, the competition amongst scientists working in the same field for – let´s call it – “the best idea“ to combat global warming, the pressure when looking for financial partners from public corporations, from affluent people e.g. entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, who are trying to lobby for their projects, to collect money for building prototypes etc.

My interest was not to push the scientists’ technologies but to get to know the new fields, to understand their approaches and ideas, to talk about their desire to test a prototype in the real world, which somehow resembles public art projects...

With scientist Klaus Lackner, professor and director of the Lenfest Center for sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, I established a longer collaboration. Klaus Lackner is developing a synthetic tree, or more precisely a technology that captures carbon emissions. He was one of the scientists involved in the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, and later he moved to Columbia. Just recently he returned to Arizona to run a new institute for Negative Carbon Emissions.

I visited Klaus Lackner a few times at his laboratory. I followed his working process, in order to get the work atmosphere, trying to understand his vocabulary and way of thinking. Later, in 2011, I invited him to collaborate in a few public events. We gave a common presentation and staged talk at Johnson Design Center, Parsons, The New School, NY. Then he was involved in my exhibition at Space for Art and Industry in Brooklyn, where I showed a video-piece of one of his experiments with the synthetic tree and displayed an original resin branch of the synthetic tree. At the exhibition, the synthetic tree worked as a symbol that can possibly focus people’s imaginations on a potential collision between nature and technology. In the frame of this exhibition, the former major of New York, Michael Bloomberg, visited the show and made known his interest in the technology of the synthetic tree. Politicians worldwide, like Bloomberg, try to bring these technologies into their ideas and plans of “sustainable and smart cities“, however with little discussion about their ambivalent character and often dangerous side-effects. Klaus Lackner also participated in an art-science symposium we organized in the Austrian countryside in 2012. Slowly we developed a good relationship and it became easier to talk about criticism of technology, negative side-effects, problems of governance, ethical issues in the context of manipulating nature, or geopolitical implications.

My interest was here to stage a situation, to display elements, props and documentations of corresponding projects and interventions, realized in that context as an artistic laboratory where different people (in the above case a politician, a scientist, and an artist) could find an environment for meeting in an organized way or just by chance. It is an effort to get to that specifically designed environment for accidental meetings or choreographed talks, informal hang outs and exchanges of ideas of the imaginary and the real world, in order to talk, to interact, to see, in an unusual situation... No results are necessary, just the moments of being there... Through all my works I intend to stage a specific situation, to visualize a narrative evolving around these somehow weird technologies and their representation in visual culture.

πThe more I learn with awe about some of these mega-projects to save the world, with their strange mixture of science fiction, with politicians and scientists coming together, the more it seems to me they have become the latest (or last?) field where one dreams of a Gesamtkunstwerk.And through it, it seems, a real transition of dreams and realities is under way, from securing sunshine to preventing snowfall. How do you see geoengineering as something connecting science, art and society today, and how did it influence or change your approach to artistic practice?

∫ Like in a Gesamtkunstwerk, scientists with the power of politicians are seemingly responsible and in charge to oversee and design the globe on large scale, to play around with its state of matter and metabolism. Phantasies of omnipotence... At the beginning of my research I was interested in understanding the ideas and different approaches of geoengineering, but the more I got to know, the more I felt fearful of the potential applications and violations of these technologies. Especially when you read the recent IPCC report, which also says that we might have to go for the plan B (involving geoengineering), as we cannot stop global warming. This supports power politics using arguments from scientists in order to go for the technological solution, instead of trying the harder, possibly less popular way of supporting and communicating the changes of behaviour required of people and industries.

What I learnt from researching such a global and transdisciplinary theme like geoengineering is that it is more and more important to involve in my own research the variety of different cultural and geopolitically driven approaches about the relation of nature-society-politics. At the beginning of my research my intention was also to deliver information on geoengineeringas part of my practice, since I found that the public was not informed enough about this topic. I was also interested to observe the process: who are the first people who occupy anemergentdiscourseon a new theme, before it gets spread to a larger group of interested, and how it finally arrives to the wider public. Who will be the first producing and collecting information, formulating questions and directing a discourse? Will these people come from human sciences or economic sciences or... or...? What will then happen, as it depends on their approaches, worldviews, analyses and vocabularies...?

Over time, my artistic practice and methods embraced more and more a larger variety of formats, such as doing performative lectures, collecting knowledge, and building up an archive on certain aspects of the theme, but also re-reading certain texts and documents (such as the ones from the context of land art), making art-science collaborations, developing pseudo-laboratory situations, co-designing public actions trying to enhance local activities and resistance.

Trying to develop productive fictions...

πAre dreams about the technoculture of geoengineering replacing the dreams of the space age?

∫ From my point of view, the ideas and dreams related to geoengineering will not replace the dreams of space and space technology. Geoengineering still sounds like a science fiction that opens areas of the new, the magical and unexpected. However, nowadays geoengineering gets more and more integrated into the mainstream knowledge and therefore seems to become realistic. It is obviously fascinating for a few people to have the power to design the weather, the climate and the landscape of planet earth – be it to maintain or improve the current living conditions for humans on the planet, or for other purposes, such as the continuous extraction of resources, or exerting militaristic, power politics at the global level. We have arrived in the Anthropocene...

Space technologies boomed especially during the Cold War times. For instance, in the US, the Reagan administration supported and launched the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) in 1983, also called the Star Wars programme, the national defence programme against a potential nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, which was combined with dreams to conquer the space and make other planets liveable (terraforming).

Some technologies and worldviews deriving from these times are still around and have been starting points for research and experiments in geoengineering: for instance Edward Teller (“the father of the hydrogen bomb“) proposed to transform a village in Alaska into an ice-free shipping harbour through the application of a nuclear bomb (Project Chariot, 1962). With Lowell Wood, he presented another plan to send up clouds of tiny particles into the sky, in order to reflect sunrays back into space. Another concept proposed at that time was sending space mirrors into the sky as an anti-global warming measure, drawing from a concept first considered as an option to cool the climate on the planet Venus. Geoengineering and measures that design and re-design the world’s landscape through human action and applied technology both derive from the 60s. But only in 2000 the discussion on the new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, came up with fundamental questions regarding the relationship between nature and humanity, which are also central areas of interest of my current works.

πYou brought geoengineering to public attention with an installation consisting of one video piece, a few collaged panels, an object, and two publications in your contribution to the Maldives Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Can you explain the context of your contribution? Also, maybe you could tell a few things about the way in which the Maldives Pavilion project did come about, how was it organized?

∫ The international artist-curator collective Chamber of Public Secret was invited to conceive the first Maldives Pavilion for the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. They decided to work on the theme-oriented concept “Portable Nation – Disappearance as work in progress“, instead of following a classical representation of a nation. Amongst other things, they reacted to the historical premiere of the world´s first underwater cabinet meeting, which was held by the Maldives government. The then-president of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, wanted to send this eye-catching message out to the world community, in order to inform about the dangers of sea level raise for the Maldives islands: current forecasts are talking about the disappearance of the Maldives entirely into the ocean, with its population probably becoming the first climate refugees, if the raise of the sea levels cannot be stopped by actions reducing carbon emissions in time.

The location for the show was the Gervasuti Foundation, located between the two main venues of the Biennale, Giardini and Arsenale. The curators and associated curators invited around fifteen artists, filmmakers, activists, etc. with different backgrounds and nationalities. From the beginning, the pavilion was conceived as a bottom-up project involving elements of self-organization of the involved artists and curators. You could also see the project as a platform for research and communication on this specific topic of “a local problem and urgency at the Maldives that can only be solved on a global level“, but you could describe the Pavilion also as an aesthetic dispositive for a complex, powerful political discussion.

In my contribution I also started from the topic of the rising sea level, on which most researchers agree. But what does this mean for the numerous vulnerable islands and coastal areas of the world? The disappearance of the Maldives? New York or Venice under water? In this work I combined art and science, facts and fictions to analyse the interplay between local microclimate, regional weather, and the rising sea levels owed to climate change, by way of an installation of a desk with typical equipment including scientific and political journals, as well as the model and video of a synthetic tree symbolizing the view of a geoengineering scientist caught in a dilemma between ideas of omnipotence and the intention of saving the world.

Collaged panels as part of the installation consider the global perspective with its sci-fi like large-scale interventions, as well as local level technologies such as planned or newly built climate resilient infrastructure that could possibly prevent the Maldives, Venice or New York from their somewhat similar destinies. The approaches and potential side-effects and dangers of using these technologies are embedded into the specific cultural contexts of these places, building thus critical reference system of local concerns and implications.

In the frame of the exhibition, the Contingent Movements Archive symposium was organized by some of the artists of the pavilion. Together with the associated curator Maren Richter, we contributed to the symposium by conceiving and moderating a boat trip to the Venice Lagoon inviting international experts from the artistic field, scientists from Venice, local fishermen and visitors for lectures and discussions, while passing relevant points of interest in Venice and the lagoon where historical and actual effects of rising sea level and erosion are visible. We also passed the construction site of the MOSE project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), a very much discussed and criticized large-scale flood-defense and gate-system that should protect the city from potential flooding.

Later, the curators of Kunstverein rotor in Graz invited me to show my contribution Hacking the Future and Planet from the Maldives Pavilion in Venice at their gallery in the frame of the exhibition Massnahmen zur Rettung der Welt. The installation of the work in Graz was set up slightly different compared to that in Venice.

πIn 2011 you involved volunteers from the Austrian remote town Pischelsdorf, especially people from the neighborhood, to paint the main square of the city white, using the Albedo effect. Is the square still white? And did Malevich get his color wrong? Also in Maribor, you sprayed a white square in one of the city’s most symbolically charged places, Glavni Trg. Furthermore, in Cooling Station,the roofs of the farmsteads of a few families in Krakauebenewere temporarily wrapped in white foil during the summer. Can you tell us more about the Albedo effect and your experiments and results with it, in the real and symbolic worlds?

∫ The Albedo effect is the ability of surfaces to reflect (solar) radiation back into the atmosphere causing cooling effects on the surrounding microclimate. For a few years already, the Albedo effect has been used as the scientific background when it comes to designing, re-designing and co-designing the architecture and spatial situations of urban areas, because the increasing temperatures owing to global warming are especially affecting densely built-up urban areas. There are discussions about the best colours and materials of surfaces (of roofs, concrete walls, squares, even parked cars...) involved in constructing new buildings, re-considering the main wind directions for cooling effects, as well as other passive cooling effects obtained from specific architectural elements.

On the other side, there are studies that say that if we would paint all roofs, squares and other large surfaces on the globe white we cannot be sure if this would not trigger, in the worst case, even a new ice age. With no clear “right and best decision“, the Albedo effect represents the ambivalence I approach in my artistic practice.

I experimented with the Albedo effect in several projects and interventions in public space: I involved the public for painting and collaborated with climate scientists and meteorologists to measure local changes of temperature on newly white-painted squares. Together we created what can be called a pseudo-scientific situation for the public. Scientists told me that it was great to collaborate with an artist, and that it allowed them to do relatively large scale experiments in the “real world“, beside their regular practice in laboratories.

For painting the main square of Pischelsdorf I developed a choreography for the painting action and organized the clothes, paint and painting tools. On the one hand, people got the chance to co-design their neighbourhood, to temporarily transform and occupy the car-dominated square into a walkable zone closed for traffic. They talked about the local effects of climate change, getting involved in transforming the aesthetics of a “dying“ square (once a historical and lively place, nowadays abandoned and badly adapted for cars), bringing back memories of a vivid square from past times. After the painting action the square was like a huge white canvas... and yes some reference to Malevich was around... Another aspect of this action was its preparation: talking with the mayor and the members of the local municipality, convincing them and local opinion leaders to support this “useless artistic idea“. Somehow it worked.

My initial plan was that the ecologically harmless distemper white paint was to disappear through the impacts of weathering from rain and sun, but a week after the painting the mayor sent the fire-brigade out to clean the square with water hoses, because he was afraid of bad political PR due to such a “crazy“ action. He was afraid of losing the following elections because he supported the painting action...

I performed a second Albedo intervention in Krakauebene. I temporarily wrapped the roofs of two farmer houses in the mountainous countryside with white foil.Thus, I wanted to talk on eye-level with the farmers about the option to intervene with an art-project on the roofs of their private buildings. The action lead us to further interesting discussions in the context of climate change, about its local effects of rising temperatures which also lead to less snow fall, which affects winter tourism, about new forms of vegetation, new living areas of local animals, which changes the quality of agricultural products, and about the danger that the region gets slowly abandoned because of the consequent lack of jobs, income and perspectives to survive. It was also great to get the chance of implementing this temporary intervention in the landscape which is visible from far away, based scientifically on the Albedo effect, yet realized in an absurd version with practically no local cooling effect, since these farmer houses are situated at more than 1,500 meters above sea level in a quite cold alpine region.

A third Albedo-related intervention was made in front of the old municipality of Maribor at the square Glavni Trg: this action was reflecting on the abstract cooling effects deriving from the colour white, but interpreted in a symbolic way associated with the innocence and the “blank“ areas in the city´s history, pointing on the history of a disputed square in Maribor where the whitewashing of historical facts and events, ambiguous definitions, shifted meanings and conflicts etc. are on the agenda for many years, inscribed in the history and future of Slovenia. This white square has meanwhile slowly disappeared through impacts from rain, sunshine, wear and tears...

One main focus of all these Albedo related projects is for me the question of the role that artistic work can play in the complex web of politics, science and society. How could one develop sustainable living models and worldviews in an artistic context through mutual influence, exchange, and collaboration? Humankind’s ancient dream to influence nature is explored and criticized on the borderzones between fact and fiction, between experiments and concepts designed for the real world.

And again, another aspect that interests me while reflecting on the scientific approaches and collaborating with scientists is to involve local experts in order to develop a common vocabulary, a common language to talk about the different versions of the so-called truth, about subjectivity and ambivalent approaches to see and possibly transform the world...

πIn 2010 you created an installation, Perfection Monster, focusing on the experience of a standardized “non-place“ like the Maria-Restituta-Platz: a periphery of Vienna which strives nevertheless for perfection, and where the local internalization of global norms can be observed in its most intimate detail. It seems like you are doing here the work of educating the sensibility for seeing the ways in which our world is subtly colonized. What response can be found in the “improvisations of everyday life“?

∫ From my point of view, “improvisations of everyday life“ have to do with the basic human intention, necessity and wish to survive or trying to make a “better living“, firstly counting on local options and resources and secondly often involving the need to improvise, to re-use, to re-build, to up- and down-cycle materials and goods that are available.

Non-places like transportation hubs, the places in front of cash machines, etc., are optimally using every square meter with their standardized features. Diversity is reduced to a minimum, and similar spatial features and details are subtly colonizing different places worldwide with the same style, architectural features, capitalistic ideas, politics and aesthetics behind. As a response, the specific local identities of these places can only be derived from their temporary use by different communities, often with a migrant background, who are using participatory co-design processes to adapt the places for various purposes like markets and events, for private, often informal, work or business.

πSo then, in relation to your work, 2050 Prishtina,how does the future of Prishtina look from the perspective of utopian gas stations?

∫ Today and in the future, gas stations are worldwide important as points of crystallisation of a certain hang-out and transit-culture in suburban areas and in-between spaces. They are semi-public spaces open for nearly everyone. On gas stations informality meets formalized processes and spatial planning, bringing together people of different social backgrounds, cultures and nationalities, who are living in their everyday life in parallel structures – which exist in Prishtina more than in other places. And the question on the future origin of the gas remains...

πTell me about your approach to Self Produced City,Rome, 2013.

∫ In the framework of the project S.M.U.R. (Self Made Urbanism), artists, architects and theoreticians were invited to do research in the periphery of Rome by exploring Via Casilina, an arterial road running south-eastwards from around the central train station Roma Termini to the outskirts of the city and beyond. Carrying out field trips and exchanges with urbanists, sociologists and local people, we investigated the informal urban fabric, the self-built and self-organized city that has developed here and has reformulated the city and its unplanned growth for many years.

The historical terrain of cities is permanently transformed by such self-produced urbanities in metropolitan neighbourhoods. The background of transformations often has to do with social struggles related to internal and international migration. The dynamics and urgencies of appropriation and re-appropriation, as well as the quest for an independent social space, resisting to neoliberal developments, are based on the necessities, practices, political approaches and parallel structures of people and communities living and resisting in that area, who are trying to make daily life and survival possible.

My field of research in the context of this project focused on the Bengali community mainly living in and transforming the area of Rome´s district Torpignattara, located further out on Via Casilina. In May 2013, Parco di Centocelle, a huge public park at Via Casilina in the outskirts of Rome, was hosting the Festa Interculturale Roma, a big transnational festival self-organized by a local Bengali cultural association collaborating with migrant initiatives from 14 countries of the Global South. Whereas the living situations and residence status of Bengali people in Rome are often rather “informal“, the organization level of their associations is very high and they are also well connected, internationally as well as with Bangladesh. My work Breezy Park consisted of a two-channel video-installation plus printed matter, focusing on the origination process of this festival in the park by joining the community who prepared, shaped and rehearsed the event. On the one hand the project narrates stories about these people and communities: Who are they? What is their understanding of informality and public sphere? What about their relations to the socio-political, how they weather the extreme struggles in Bangladesh? On the other hand the project follows the spatial changes deriving from the festival architectures of the temporary “(tent) city in front of the city“, materializing the appropriation of the public park with a breeze of improvisation, informality and formalization alike. For the research of this project, I collaborated with Andrea Priori, a social anthropologist from the University of Roma III, and with Mukul and Munna from Pathsala, a Bengali Association of Rome. The project S.M.U.R. was exhibited at NGBK in Berlin in 2013 and in Rome in collaboration with Metropoliz and Teatro Valle Occupato in 2014.

πWhat is your approach to locality? You seem to have a very keen way of reading and respecting a place, while connecting it at the same time with some of the most all-encompassing theories and practices.

∫ I always try to begin my works with a thorough site-specific research, including investigations on the history of the place – from the distance as well as locally by field trips, trying to use local facilities as the local population of different urban milieus does, and above all respecting the place and its inhabitants, appreciating their local endeavours and achievements. After having overcome a certain level of understanding of the environment and its conflicts, having identified local ambivalences, I try to dig into unseen aspects and potentialities that might become important in the future, always attempting to combine and think transversally, the small and the large, the appearing and the disappearing, the fact and the fiction, the local and the global, the inclusion and exclusion. One could describe it as my personal version of a “critical geography“, often combined with a critical reflection of the theories on the Anthropocene.

πWhere does that lead in the immediate future?

∫ The term “Overloaded“ – used in variable relations and reference systems – is a relevant point of reflection and context of my current and immediate work, referring to topics of my research and upcoming projects such as overloaded landscapes or the overloaded grid, which are current and disputed issues. On one hand I respond to the necessity of reflecting the concepts, imaginary and criticism of the new geologic turn, the era of the Anthropocene. On the other hand it is about approaches and practices of how to unload the overloaded grid by facing and narrating the urgencies of what should be done to transform the diverse layers of crisis and inequalities with productive fictions, projected to an imagined reality and a future that is already taking shape.

Further layers of my current work are the relations, interferences and ambivalences between appearing and disappearing. One example of my work in this context refers to landscapes such as coastal areas or islands which get increasingly vulnerable. They tend to disappear because of the impact of global warming and its effects of unintentional design, because of weather extremes, or because of collateral effects owed to the speculative construction work aiming to re-design landscapes, or to the illegal small scale and/or large scale resource extraction, land use change or land grabbing, and so on. One of my current projects reflects on this issue in the context of the material sand, which becomes an increasingly valuable resource extracted in high volumes, leading to violations of human rights, ecological crises and exhausted geographies. Thus, for instance, sea sand is an important material for the building industry because it is essential for the production of concrete which is needed to a large extent for the construction of new buildings designed speculatively, for instance in Dubai or Spain. The geopolitical relations become visible when looking at countries with coastal areas of sand or islands, who are exporting this shrinking resource to the building booming cities/countries. The extensive sand mining is endangering the livelihood of the local inhabitants on these coastal areas or islands of sand. Because of this often illegal extraction, they slowly disappear.

At the same time there is a political crisis regarding the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea because of a newly appearing artificial island built of sand with dredger ships, needed in order to construct buildings and infrastructure on it, making it possible thus to claim territorial waters as well as demonstrating the power and ownership of the Chinese government against other countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. The Chinese also put their finger on the expected valuable resources and untapped oil in the underwater region, planning to extract in the future. This project will be installed for a show at Kunsthaus Graz which opens in the spring of 2015.

Further research and work I am doing are related to fictions of constructing a contemporary version of a wind-tower which is a traditional Persian architectural device for natural ventilation without any required source of external energy. Reflecting on global urban developments, this research builds a critical approach to the “greenwashing“ of Smart City concepts that pop up in many cities worldwide. These concepts (e.g. currently elaborated in Vienna, or in Masdar City, the utopia-like walled city under construction in Abu Dhabi which is planned to be opened in a few years) beautifully represent a growing global phenomenon: the progressive polarization and division of the world, between local tradition and modernization, between living in a completely controlled, elaborated gated-community and living in huge ghetto-like open settlements, “informal cities“ open to the unexpected transformations of everyday life.

πMoving on to the work environment of artists in Austria that you know very well, how are critical artists surviving and also getting self-organised? I’m thinking for instance of the VorOrt network in Graz.

∫ Self-organized platforms, projects and processes that provide possibilities for specific information, networking, exchange and collaboration for contemporary artists are emerging also in Austria. They are increasingly important as the structures of interested big art institutions or established galleries get less and less accessible for most of the artists. Furthermore, there is a lack of serious public debates on cultural politics and the conditions of work of artists and their cultural production. Mentioning specifically Graz, initiatives such as VorOrt are highly needed in that city as there is a lack of a connecting structure for contemporary artists (e.g. an art academy – there were discussions about establishing one in Graz for many years). This initiative also reflects the situation of artists who are leaving Graz for the bigger Vienna, or further beyond, because of the lack of relevant possibilities for research, production and presentation.

So, how to develop specific practices and skills, how to survive and proceed working in that field? Through self-organization, informal relations and communities, artist-run initiatives and spaces having a clear concept behind, solidarity, specific art related discourses, open source, documentation and archiving of artistic work... Thus creating structures parallel to the existing ones...

πWhat changes do you see in the life of contemporary artists in the independent sector in Vienna, ever since the city adopted contemporary arts as its mainstreaming identity?

∫ A real critical cultural-political debate regarding the conditions of production and presentation in the contemporary art field, and in the cultural sector in general, is somehow missing in Austria. Like in many European countries and beyond, neoliberal tendencies, such as the so-called creative industries, accelerate the transformations and availabilities of affordable spaces and the contexts of work for artists, especially in urban areas. They direct public attention towards the product and the lifestyle-oriented events.

Austria, defining itself as a cultural nation, puts a lot of effort in keeping the public funds and budgets for the big Austrian cultural institutions and players, because of their importance as image and event producer for tourism and its derivatives.

The conditions for independent work in the art field are getting more difficult and informal, and there are more collaborative working structures and projects. Currently there is a boom of different concepts of artist-run off-spaces and alternatives, often because of the precarious living and working conditions. Independent projects are forced to find new areas providing the means for research, production and presentation: on one hand, some smaller self-organized spaces and initiatives are driven to somehow institutionalize themselves, in order to apply for funds or become a possible partner, when it comes to funds and sponsors from the private sector. Some strange projects have come out of it... On the other hand, the public funding policy for smaller, research-oriented projects and collaborations has changed as well. The public funding institutions of the city of Vienna and from the Austrian ministry also noticed the changes in art practices, like inter-and trans-disciplinary art-based projects, collaborations with scientists etc., and consequently opened the possibility to obtain funds from the Viennese department for science or research.

Relatively recently, in 2013–2014, Generali Foundation and Bawag Foundation, two mid-size art institutions with a quite good reputation and programme disappeared from the Viennese landscape. Generali Foundation moved to Salzburg and Bawag Foundation closed the doors. This reduced the diversity of art discourses and exhibition contexts and the possibilities for local artists, including a negative international effect for Vienna as an art destination in general. A positive effect on the Viennese art scene is coming from international artists and researchers settling or moving temporarily into the city, for studies or artist in residence programmes. This enforces discourse and possibilities for international collaborations.

One can summarize that Austria, compared to other countries, has a working public funding system for artists and independent projects presenting a progressive work or institution. However, the direction taken currently is somehow problematic and unclear, not least because these relations and structures are often transferred towards new forms of public-private sponsorship and new dependencies. And finally, the works of contemporary artists, including small scale public events of self-organized projects and/or independent art spaces, are often used and incorporated to communicate the art-and-culture image, trying to brand with it the identity of “smart and creative“ Vienna.

πIf you were to be coordinating the Chișinău’s World Center of Climate Manipulation, what would be your first project?

∫ First of all, I’m in favour of making Hotel National the headquarter of this Center. Half of its space should be reserved for artists of various disciplines and philosophers, while the other half is dedicated to scientists, coming equally from different disciplines. The whole place would be open to the public to invite everyone to share ideas and experiment in an open work space. Results not directly required, unintentionally overloaded.