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contesting/contexting SPORT 2016: Interview with Zeljko Blace

Featured image: ToolsForAction.net / Artúr van Balen and QueerSport.info / Zeljko Blace, ‘POP-UP RAINBOW’, 2014

Zeljko Blace is working in(-between) contemporary culture, media technologies and sport, cross-pollinating queer, media and social activism. He is one of the initiators and a co-curator of the project ‘contesting/contexting SPORT 2016.

‘contesting/contexting SPORT 2016’

to reclaim the field with art and activism
exhibition and program in Berlin (08.07-28.08.2016)
at nGBK and KunstraumKreuzberg/Bethanien
http://ccSPORT.nGbK.de
www.facebook.com/cc.sport.2016/
www.twitter.com/CcSPORT2016

The exhibition and program contests the field of SPORT through critical art and activist practices. Coming from feminist and queer practices, the project aims to challenge discrimination and encourage emancipation. SPORT is contextualized from its declarative neutrality and autonomy, rendering diverse influences, but also experiences and conditions of SPORT realities visible.

Organized by the ccSPORT international working group of the nGbK including also: Caitlin D. Fisher, Carmen Grimm, Mikel Aristegui, Sarah Bornhost, Stuart Meyers, Imtiaz Ashraf, Andreea Carnu, with support from: Tom Weller, Alexa Vachon, Ilaa Tietz, Tabea Huth, Barbara Gruhl, Steffy Narancic, Tristan Deschamps, Coral Short, Gegen Berlin, Schwules Museum, and advisors: Alex Brahim, Jennifer Doyle, Philippe Liotard, Jules Boykoff, Stephane Bauer and †Frank Wagner.

BOSMA: The ‘contesting/contexting SPORT 2016’ exhibition and program shows a wide range of uncommon perspectives on sports, questioning cultural systems embedded in them we hardly ever think about. Why did you make this exhibition?

BLACE: In this ‘networked’ and globalized time we paradoxically live out a multiplicity of highly fragmented realities, niched in specialized interest groups, while ‘others’ feel they can not contribute or even relate to them. It felt like this to me in my work during the late/post 90s with tactical and net media activism/art – fully disconnected from queer politics and sports organizing for which I had an increasing interest. In general the field of sport has not been part of the lives of many intellectuals, activists and creatives. Many had bad (even traumatic) experiences with sport in childhood and adolescence, feeling alienated, or simply not recognizing it as a possible field to develop work in (unlike right-wing populists in tribal fan cultures). Simply put, the sport system has been taken for granted in its current form. Hence, my first curated sport exhibition title, paraphrased ‘sport hater’ Chomsky, in ‘Another SPORT is possible?!.’ (2012, Galerija NOVA, Zagreb, Croatia). My Berlin colleagues and ccSPORT co-founders Caitlin Fisher, Tom Weller and Carmen Grimm felt the same about the separation of sport from arts, activism and academic research. Together (with the support of exhibition spaces nGbK and Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien) we made plans to instigate and support intersections, cross-pollinate practices and perspectives between these fields through an exhibition, program and media work. We strongly felt the field of sport would never become self-critical and reform, nor would it engage with a wider audience beyond a given consumerist mode, if left to the managerial mentalities and the opportunism of its leaders. We need to reclaim the field of sport together to change it.

David Miguel Diaz, ‘IN GOD WE TRUST ?’ 2013
David Miguel Diaz, ‘IN GOD WE TRUST ?’ 2013

Is this the first ever exhibition criticizing the cultural and political dimensions of sports, and if not, how does your perspective relate or differ from earlier approaches?

I can not say with complete certainty what other group exhibitions on sport critique have taken place before. There have been many on a small scale, marginal in comparison to the huge exhibitions that ‘celebrate’ sports and are used as decor and entertainment accompanying sport spectacles (a notable exception is the seminal work ‘Electronic Café’ by K. Galloway & S. Rabinowitz at the 1984 LA Olympics, that actually provides space for interaction/discussion in between different city locations). There were also a few archival exhibitions looking at historical artifacts and documentation critically, as well as some that were experimental and playful (such as the Fluxus Olympiad, scripted as non-competitive multi-sports event) but these approaches were somewhat one-sided. We aspire to create a basis for both critical reflection and informed envisioning of possible developments, by looking at personal perspectives and artistic visions, next to grass-root alternatives and interventions.

Micha Cardenas, ‘STRONGER’ 2016
Micha Cardenas, ‘STRONGER’ 2016

The main threads in the exhibition seem to be gender, queerness and the connection between culture, commerce and rules in sport. Are these the main issues at hand?

Indeed our starting points were feminist and queer positions, but we were also very interested in the wider range of intersections and systemic issues within the field of sport that we could connect, rather than focusing on single-issues like homophobia or racism as is often done in mainstream sport campaigns. We decided very early on that the project would not be about identity politics, but rather about the multiplicities of axes of discrimination. There is a spectrum of emancipation efforts and practices that inspire us to think outside of gender norms, result-focused competitions, spectacle creating events and omnipresent ‘development’ narratives – which ignore for example that women had more access to certain sports historically in different geographies then they did in past 30 years of globalized neoliberalism.

augmented_profile from Diego Grandry on Vimeo..

How do you see the role of the media in the perception of sport?

Traditional broadcast media are the key stakeholder in the Olympics and similar sporting-spectacles. They have made the organizers of large sport events addicted to their huge broadcast contract revenues, but then inherently push for the spectacle of mega-events even further at the cost of other aspects. Newer sports that have evolved around this economy of attention have often sexed athletes (most visible with female beach volleyball) or at least contributed to enforcing gender stereotyping (like the feminization of soccer/football to the point that there are almost no short haired players at the Olympics). Instead of actively evolving with the progressive trends in sport, most broadcasters deepen the stereotypes; too often commenting on the marital status and appearance of female athletes, or referring to them as girls. Athletes from smaller countries, and sports that receive the least coverage are often looked down on, projecting neo-colonial relations on them (or hosts as in Brazil).

With internet networks and ‘social’ media the situation it is more complex as the interactive nature of media often allows for feedback and multiple standpoints in the same, or various foras. These media diversity brings to the surface and exposes critical minority voices and individuals who are able to argue against norms and question their necessities. For example, the tokenizing of muslim female athletes during these last Olympics received great reactions including historical facts about muslim women winning medals in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Also the outing of gay athletes by one reporter, was widely criticized online and the media hype reboot around Caster Semenya was compensated by internet and hybrid media (i.e. AJ+) publishing numerous expert articles and even giving voice to many (including former opponents critics converted to supporters as in case of Australian runner Madeleine Pape).

RAFUCKO, ’Postcards’ from series of ’MonstruáRIO 2016: Rio's Anti-Souvenir Shop’ 2016
RAFUCKO, ’Postcards’ from series of ’MonstruáRIO 2016: Rio’s Anti-Souvenir Shop’ 2016

The connection between rules and cultural systems in sports is fascinating to me. You have worked as an organizer/curator in Multimedia Institute/MaMa before focusing on sport. What is your perspective on the rise of technological systems in the enforcement of rules, like for example drug testing or electronic goal-line and court line tracking?

Actually, the technological aspects of sport are the ones that still need to be addressed more specifically (technology centered single sport competitions exist since years, with The Cybathlon as their olympics premiere in Zurich, October 8th 2016). They not only re-enforce certain types of (measurable) norms, but also reduce the complexity into what appears to be arguable ‘logic’ and ‘common sense,’ while hiding other aspects (psychological and even aesthetic). Drug testing is an important measure of control, but is usually focused on the supra-performance of medal-winning athletes, rather than concerning itself with more generally applicable questions: what are the drugs, who has access to them and why. As long as the prevalent ‘production’ of results at all costs is dominating sports, the goal of ‘clean’ sports regardless of technological advancements in control will remain impossible. Gender policing at the Olympics has had a lengthy technological path, starting with visual and medical inspections, moving on to DNA and hormone testing and nowadays being fully questioned. Measuring and tracking technologies have the most interesting potential, not only for confirming line calls but for reshaping sports into allowing potentialities of variable norms and measuring based on generative fields/infrastructures. However, this kind of innovation is more likely to develop in the edges of eSports industry (that is pushed by novelty rather than burdened by traditions and conventions) and then maybe get normalized into traditional sport competitions once existing sport federations and regulatory bodies start losing young markets.

Still from VIDEO TRAILER: ccSPORT presenting GeurreirasProject.org
Still from VIDEO TRAILER: ccSPORT presenting GeurreirasProject.org

What do you hope to achieve? And in line with this, are there plans for follow-up events (possible also relating to tech)?

It was important for us to initiate conversations and collaborations that were not in place before, especially between those excluded from the mainstream sport system. We stirred up some interest from academic researchers for immediate follow-ups, but also informed some activists and artists of each other’s work. Ideally this could be developed further to elevate the critical and creative work in the field of sport and address issues in multifaceted ways.

We hope the exhibition and program enabled visitors to develop a more articulate position rather than just LOVING / HATING SPORTS, maybe supporting our platform — and ideally also inspired them to build personal or collective proactive relationships to sports. Maybe through practices of engagement against mega-spectacles and hyper-commercialization of sports, while supporting/partaking in grass-root sports or reforming the mainstream system.

NCAA Team Photo, photo credit: Jordan Tynes
NCAA Team Photo, photo credit: Jordan Tynes

Now we look forward to have the time for reflection after the intense work of materializing the exhibition and the extensive events program, as well as to see what future sport events could be interesting to contest and/or contextualize. One of the most important follow-ups is establishing an online space for sustainable communication, exchange and sharing information, know-how, methods, most likely using wikis, maps and media that came out of our research and workshops during the summer exhibition program.

This will be ncluding video of closing lecture by prof. Jennifer Doyle on art, sports and questioning the origins and need for the gender segregation in sports! More info will be appearing on our working website http://www.ccSPORT.link/

Whistleblowers & Vigilantes | Exhibition Review

Featured Image: Ubermorgen, “Vote-Auction”, 2000. Installation view from the exhibition “Whistleblower & Vigilantes”

It has been a long time since an exhibition shocked and confused me. In fact, I cannot even remember when it last happened. Yet the exhibition Whistleblowers & Vigilanters has managed to do just that. Curators Inke Arns and Jens Kabisch of the Dortmund art institution Hartware Medienkunst Verein (HMKV) have put up a show in which complete nut cases are presented side by side with political activists, artists and whistleblowers a la Edward Snowden. This makes the exhibition ask for quite some flexibility from the audience. Visitors have to work hard in order to understand the connection made here between, for example, racist conspiracy theories expressed through YouTube videos and the ordeal of a whistleblower like Chelsea Manning.

Lutz Dammbeck, Letter to Me (Unabomber manifesto, handcorrected) 2003 and Go to Trial (video about Unabomber) 2016
Lutz Dammbeck, Letter to Me (Unabomber manifesto, handcorrected) 2003 and Go to Trial (video about Unabomber) 2016

The very short introduction text to the exhibition guide is part of the puzzle we are presented with. The basic premises of the exhibition are explained in what I think is not the best possible manner, because it leaves out any mentioning or analysis of the huge political differences among the people and works presented. At the same time the use of words like higher law and self-legitimization easily creates a feeling of unease about each practitioner or type of activism in the show:

“The exhibition asks what links hacktivists, whistleblowers and (Internet) vigilantes. What is the legal understanding of these different actors? Do they share certain conceptions? Who speaks and acts for whom and in the capacity of which (higher) law? Among other issues the exhibition will examine the differing legal conceptions and strategies of self-legitimisation put forth by activists, whistleblowers, hackers, online activists and artists to justify their actions.”

By placing the revelations of Edward Snowden next to the complete print out of the manifesto of the Unabomber or (more harmless but still of a different level of impact) the battle over a hostile domain name takeover in Toywar the first impression is a levelling of the practices and people involved. To make some sort of distinction between the various represented rebellious or activist positions in the exhibition guide the whole is divided into sections. The sections however do not indicate socio-political position or relevance, but rather imply the ways people legitimize their actions (1).

Inke Arns giving a tour of the exhibition. Anonymous (left), Metahaven (far left), Wikileaks' Collateral Murder (middle),  Lulz (right)
Inke Arns giving a tour of the exhibition. Anonymous (left), Metahaven (far left), Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder (middle), Lulz (right)

The spatial design and mapping of the exhibition seem to give some indication of political direction, but it is accidental. To the far right of the entry we find all installations labeled ‘Vigilantes’: a website collecting images of online fraudsters (419eater.com), two videos about Anders Breivik and Dominic Gagnon’s collection of mostly right-wing extremist YouTube videos. Slightly controversial is how the Vigilantes section puts together these quite obvious nut cases and criminals with Anonymous and what the curators call ‘Lulz’, the near troll-like jokesters who ridicule anything they don’t like with razor sharp memes. I am not sure whether these two products of the online forum 4chan deserve this simple pairing to YouTube hate preachers. A finer distinction between the various Internet underbelly representatives might have been better here. That this could have been done is shown by Lutz Dammbeck’s archive on the Unabomber’s placement in the Vigilante section, which has two labels. It is the sole representative of the Critique of Technology section as well. Another strange pairing happens in the Antinomism section, where an installation around a video with Julian Assange and a rightwing terrorist bomb disguised as soda machine are the only examples.

Ubermorgen's Vote Auction installation (center). Crypto-anarchist content & John Perry Barlow talking about the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (background) Wikileaks' Collateral Murder (far right).
Ubermorgen’s Vote Auction installation (center). Crypto-anarchist content & John Perry Barlow talking about the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (background) Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder (far right).

The middle ground of the exhibition shows a mix of artist activism and hacker culture. Mediengruppe Bitnik are here with a video of their Delivery for Mr. Assange. Black Transparency by Metahaven is represented through one utopian architecture model and printed wall cloths. The Peng! Collective’s Intelexit: Call-A-Spy has a telephone stand in the exhibition. The provocative sale of US votes in Vote-Auction by Ubermorgen is here as docu-installation. Etoy’s legendary Toywar is represented as well, with -in my opinion- too small a stand. Traces of many other art works and activist projects are presented in display cases, which give some more background or context to the theme. These were one of my favorite parts of the exhibition, next to the amazingly diligent and meticulous hand-drawn documentation of the Manning trial by Clark Stoeckley.

Display cases showing Luther Blissett and Anonymous (front), and  Netzpolitik (back).
Display cases showing Luther Blissett and Anonymous (front), and Netzpolitik (back).

The display cases are dedicated to freedom of speech, tools of online resistance, the Netzpolitik case, anonymity and collective identities and cypherpunk and crypto-anarchism. They provide an important insight into the context within which the other practices in the exhibition exist.
Here we find Luther Blissett, the Italian born collective online identity, with a name borrowed from a former football player. The Blissett identity is related to pre-Internet art practices, in particular Neoism, and has been used for various art pranks and activist projects, particularly in Southern Europe.

Other art projects include the influential book Electronic Civil Disobedience by Critical Art Ensemble, the German hacker art collective Foebud’s battle for free speech and privacy (presented with one of Addie Wagenknecht’s anonymity glasses), and the Electronic Disturbance Theater’s Floodnet. The latter is a DDoS attack software that was used in actions for the Mexican freedom fighters the Zapatistas, by the Yes Men and for Etoy’s Toywar project.

There is also a print out of the Cypherpunk mailinglist. The cypherpunk crypto-anarchist community is responsible for some of the most influential elements of the free Internet. They produced the PGP encryption technology, cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, TOR, the idea of WIKI and torrent platforms and marketplaces like the Silk Road. Julian Assange was one of its members.

Last but not least the presentation of the Netzpolitik.org case, which covers a German censorship scandal from last year, had to be part of this exhibition. Journalists from the online magazine Netzpolitik were arrested for treason after they had published about classified Internet surveillance plans of the German secret service. A copy of the accusation letter from the state prosecutor is oddly signed with ‘Mit freundlichen Grüßen’ (‘With kind regards’).

Display case showing crypto anarchy, cypherpunk mailinglist, early PGP software on floppy discs and bitcoin/cryptocurrency.
Display case showing crypto anarchy, cypherpunk mailinglist, early PGP software on floppy discs and bitcoin/cryptocurrency.

All in all the display cases made me happy to see some of the events and works that have been so hugely influential to the development of the Internet (and thus to the development of our current culture and politics) represented in a physical cultural space. They show a side of Internet culture that is heavily underrepresented in the general discourse around new media technologies in both mainstream media and art. During a private tour of Whistleblowers & Vigilantes for visitors of the simultaneously running Hito Steyerl exhibition Inke Arns explained how for her this exhibition is long overdue as well. According to Arns the threat to our freedom through abuse of new technologies should receive as much attention in art as the anthropocene. HMKV sees it as its responsibility to do something about it.

Hito Steyerl's Factory of the Sun. On the screen the old NSA listening post in former West-Berlin. The video is presented in a faux holodeck.
Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun. On the screen the old NSA listening post in former West-Berlin. The video is presented in a faux holodeck.

Whistleblowers & Vigilantes however does not make a straightforward statement. Its structure, both physically and content-wise, is too complex for that. This does not mean it is a bad exhibition. The bringing together of the ‘Lulz’, Anonymous, the Unabomber, net art, hacktivism, hackers and Manning, Snowden, Assange and even Breivik in one space definitely creates a lively exhibition, which cannot leave a visitor unaffected. This strange assembly then needs to be unraveled and this is where the curators take quite some risk. The addition of Hito Steyerl’s installation Factory of the Sun, an exhibition that runs simultaneously on a different floor, could help to bring the serious, crazy and light elements of the show together for that part of the audience that loses its way. In her smart playful manner Steyerl blends science fiction, humor and critique of the surveillance society in a faux holodeck cinema experience. The exhibition also includes a few live events that steer the whole into safe waters. Netzpolitik journalist Markus Beckedahl has given a presentation and so has Jens Kabisch. Kabisch wrote a text about whistleblowers that is available on the website, but this text is unfortunately only available in German. My advice to the non-German audience is to download the press kit in order to get more background information.

Clark Stoeckley, The United States vs Pvt. Chelsea Manning © State of the Arts NJ
Clark Stoeckley, The United States vs Pvt. Chelsea Manning © State of the Arts NJ

Whistleblowers & Vigilantes is a challenge to the audience. It asks for more reflection and time to take in than most exhibitions. After getting some more grip on it the complexity and scope of the exhibition, however, is impressive. It not only brings together many important, interesting and sometimes scary examples of contemporary forms of resistance and rebellion. What is also represented is the space of resistance and play that escapes attempts at systematic control, even in a full-on surveillance state. Once recovered from my initial shock this is what stayed with me the most. The wide-ranging documents, objects and installations reveal the system’s shadow spaces and vulnerabilities. Whistleblowers & Vigilanters differs from the flood of other art exhibitions themed around surveillance and control by reflecting on the legitimacy of online autonomous political action in general. Indirectly this means it also reflects upon the space of life that exists beyond all control. Rather than create another horror show around the future of privacy and freedom, with Whistleblower & Vigilanten we are presented with the persistence of fringe cultures and of free thinkers. For me this makes this an exhibition of hope.

Exhibition Info

Whistleblowers & Vigilantes. Figures of Digital Resistance
HMKV, Dortmund
9/4/16-14/8/16
https://www.hmkv.de/_en/programm/programmpunkte/2016/Ausstellungen/2016_VIGI_Vigilanten.php

Download exhibition catalogue

https://www.hmkv.de/_pdf/Ausstellungsfuehrer/2016_VIGI_Kurzfuehrer_Web.pdf