Archive for the ‘Walls & Bridges 2011’ Category

Qu’est-ce qu’une frontière ?

Dimanche 17 avril à Cooper Union, l’anthropologue Eric Chauvier, le poète Heriberto Yepez, le compositeur et musicologue Alex Waterman et le journaliste Serge Michel avaient tous des réponses différentes.

Une ligne de démarcation entre deux pays, une division intérieure, une création géopolitique, une barrière dans les mots, une réalité historique.

D’accord, mais à quoi la repère-t-on, la frontière ?

Pour Serge Michel, entre la Suisse et la France, on reconnaît une frontière à son garde moustachu et circonspect. Pour  le poète Heriberto Yepes et le compositeur Alex Waterman, on l’entend : la frontière déplace les zones du langage et de ce qui est dicible, à qui et dans quelle langue. L’anthropologue Eric Chauvier ne les voit plus, dissoutes dans les zones périurbaines.

Dimanche, ces quatre artistes et chercheurs discutaient donc des frontières au coeur de New York, la ville où les gens de tous continents affluent dans l’espoir d’échapper aux leurs, de frontières.

New York est passée maîtresse dans l’art de faire croire au monde que les frontières sont un concept dépassé – après tout, on n’a jamais demandé de visa à un flux financier.

Mais quiconque se promène à New York les voit tout de suite, ces frontières, administratives, raciales, économiques, langagières. Invisibles et palpables, elles se cachent dans la ville. Il faut les chercher et les lire.

Essai de frontiérologie new-yorkaise à travers les cartes de la ville.

La carte des 5 boroughs 

la carte des 59 "neighborhoods"

et des centaines de districts.

La carte des ethnies représentées dans la ville

(source : The New York Times )


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At Cooper Union on April 17, Heriberto Yepez presented this essay about the US/Mexican border.

Nada. Nothing.

Every time you want to cross the Tijuana (Baja California-Mexico) / San Ysidro (California-USA) border —“the world’s busiest port of entry”— a rite of passage takes place.

When milestones or boundary signs (e.g. a plow, an animal hide cut in thongs, a ditch) are ceremonially placed by a defined group on a delimited piece of earth, the group takes possession of it in such a way that a stranger who sets foot on it commits a sacrilege analogous to a profane person’s entrance into a sacred forest or temple… The prohibition against entering a given territory is therefore intrinsically magico-religious…[1]

You can legally perform the rite of territorial passage inside a car.

The rite begins you making a long line.

Estimated wait time before reaching the primary inspection booth can vary significantly. It can take from 1 hour and half to more than 4 hours, depending of the hour and day of the week. Nobody knows exactly how much time will it take, though several radio stations give information on waiting time every 15 minutes—but what the radio says can have nothing in common with real lanes of cars or the non-existent or massive line of pedestrians trying to legally cross the border.

If you perform your role in the rite of passage inside a car, dogs will sniff it.

Passenger vehicles are not supposed to touch or play with the animals, whose job is to locate drugs and bombs.


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Dans ses performances, Laurel Nakadate s’expose, au sens propre comme au sens figuré. Dans les photos et les vidéos actuellement exposées à PS1, elle est une pin-up et une lolita, une jeune fille innocente et une réalisatrice sûre de son pouvoir, tour à tour en larmes et en sous-vêtements.

Dans la performance filmée Happy Birthday, elle demande à des hommes rencontrés dans des stations essence ou des parkings s’ils veulent participer à une œuvre d’art : accepter de lui organiser une petite fête d’anniversaire, et qu’elle le filme. Des hommes entre deux âges, peu séduisants et clairement solitaires, mangent un gâteau en sa compagnie puis chantent pour elle « Happy Birthday to You », tandis qu’elle demeure immobile entre ses couettes.

Dans Oops, sur le même modèle, elle demande à des hommes de reproduire avec elle la chorégraphie de la chanson « Oops, I did it again » de Britney Spears. Elle balance les hanches, saute, tape dans ses mains, tandis qu’ils la regardent et tentent pauvrement d’imiter sa grâce.

Pour Love Hotel, elle passe dix jours seule dans des « love hotels » à Tokyo, ces hôtels destinés aux amants, et chaque jour, se filme mimant  l’amour en sous-vêtements avec un partenaire absent.

Pour Lessons 1 to 10, elle pose en sous-vêtements ou à moitié nue pour un homme solitaire, à condition de filmer les séances. L’homme choisit ce qu’elle porte et comment elle se tient : sur l’une des photos, elle est allongée sur un canapé à demi-nue, portant une jupe plissée, des couettes et des patins à roulettes, devant une assiette de donoughts (Nakadate a des origines asiatiques).

Son œuvre est polémique et perturbante. On lui reproche de manipuler des hommes solitaires et des jeunes filles, d’abuser de son pouvoir de séduction, de flatter une culture voyeuriste.

Balivernes, a répondu en substance Ruwen Ogien lundi à Union Docs. Les termes de voyeurisme et d’exhibitionnisme sont totalement inappropriés, pour parler de son œuvre et du sexe en général. "Je vous vois plutôt comme un clown", a-t-il ajouté.
Laurel Nakadate en clown : l’idée lui plaît beaucoup. Vêtue d’une chemise à carreaux et d’une écharpe vieux rose, les cheveux lâchés, peu maquillée, Nakadate, qui rentrait juste de Cracovie et repartait le lendemain pour Nashville, a discuté son œuvre dans ses propres termes – un travail sur la solitude, le surgissement de l’intimité, le courage de s’exposer,  la prise de risques, la force et la vulnérabilité. Mais le clown, oui, oui, tout à fait, d’ailleurs elle a étudié le clown enfant.


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Saturday night was a wild ride, full of divergent interpretations of "overboard." From the saxophone stylings of Ned Rothenberg, to Dan Safer‘s performance, there were many highlights.

Hopefully your curiosity was piqued, and so we’ve tracked down a few of the pieces from Saturday, plus some further reading from our guests.

-  Virtual Altar to the 72, which was introduced by translator Esther Allen

- The further antics of one Mr. Dan Safer

- José Martí’s El Puente de Brooklyn, invoked by Francisco Goldman

- David Samuels, famous BLT eater, in Harper’s

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Eric Chauvier offered this reflection on the exurban zone. (La version originale de ce texte est disponible ici)

When I became aware that the radioactive plume emanating from the Fukushima nuclear plant was almost directly above my exurban zone, very high up in the blue sky, perfectly undetectable (according to what experts in undetectable radioactivity were saying) I was on my Wednesday run. Troubled suddenly by this notion, I continued to run for a bit, then I stopped alongside a street sign indicating the name of a street, a sign I’d never seen, on a street I take every Wednesday—more or less. I was thinking again about the radioactive plume, but without considering the health risk it constituted in the eyes of the media. Something else, an idea that had yet to be identified, was making me connect this invisible cloud with the street sign; the sign on which the name of a man was inscribed, Armand Thiriez. Suddenly, the use, in this vulnerable zone where we happened to be, of a name that to my mind belonged to someone perfectly anonymous, seemed extremely vain and extremely sad: a mistake, an error of judgment that no one was noticing. I saw it as an emblem of our condition as occidental exurbanites. The malaise was becoming tangible: there were desperately no more borders around us, inside what city planners call our ‘environment’—the perception of this absence of borders rather precisely defining what our ‘environment’ was. I walked down Armand Thiriez street observing the very diverse houses along it, houses that despite their singularity (and necessarily the singularity of their occupants) always appeared to us as identical reproductions. How had we managed to acquire this negative gift of transforming the singular into the standardized? Our existences stretched outwards, limitlessly, in indifference, seemingly converting all our life impulses (those possible states of communication, now attached to vanished faces) into mutilated life. We no longer had borders to experience, between us, any sort of differentiation at all. The only ones we could conceive were distant, virtually drawn by the mass media, those of Southern Europe, where the people of the Maghreb (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria) had flocked, were fighting, or had fought, to transcend their alienated condition. Standing across the street sign on Armand Thiriez street (that, for me, was actually, the neutralized image of Armand Thiriez) I thought about how we ought perhaps to rue that we could not experience our mechanical lives to the scale of those borders, brutal as they were. Who was Armand Thiriez? What would he become here? The exurban zone was marked by the permanence of the present in the future. We often longed for the past, but never for the future. We no longer imagined the border that would have propelled us toward a future of disruption, toward what Jameson calls ‘utopia,’ a radical rediscovery of our human condition; to date, never imagined, never felt. We were cut out for utopia as fish were for the high mountain. I understood at present why the street sign was linked in my mind to the radioactive plume. It represented the very material of our isolation, undetectable emissions that were spreading endlessly in space and time.

- Eric Chauvier, translated by Dorna Khazeni

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At the Austrian Cultural Forum on April 15th, Pierre Pachet answered along those lines (la version originale est à retrouver ici) :

"Of course, free access to books, to publications, the freedom to publish without censorship, make us hope that in this treasure we may find that which might  encourage, in others, a desire for freedom, and in ourselves, that with which to resist conformity, namely the wish to submit, think and act like others. Without this hope or this illusion, we would not read, we would not write, because one cannot write simply to instruct and inform, to entertain others or oneself, or to become known. From book to book, read or written, one hopes to gain for oneself and to procure for an eventual reader,  greater freedom of thought and action. But experience—not just the sort one acquires with age—seems to me to teach the contrary: namely, that it is not the world of knowledge and culture alone that possesses this power.  And that its value, in each case, is to put to the test, more modestly, each individual’s desire for freedom, a desire that is never acquired once and for all, but that must each time—and with each reading, with each written page—be renewed, reveal itself.


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Here is Carole Talon-Hugon’s essay from the discussion of  what (self) censorship is. Talon-Hugon identifies the clash of political or ethical and aesthetic value systems as the problem underlying arguments over censorship of  art. (Retrouvez le texte en version originale ici)

Throughout Antiquity, art deemed morally transgressive was condemned and even censored without qualms.  In his Republic, Plato prescribes expulsion for poets whose tales are harmful: “the same control is to be extended to other artists, and they are also to be prohibited from exhibiting the opposite forms of vice and intemperance and meanness and indecency in sculpture and building and the other creative arts” (Book III).  For Aristotle, “since we forbid [the freeman] speaking everything which is forbidden, it is necessary that he neither sees obscene stories nor pictures […] Indeed it is as much the business of the legislator as anything else, to banish every indecent expression out of the state” (Politics, Book VIII).  And in 1767, Diderot affirms that “everything that preaches depravation is earmarked for destruction, and the greater the perfection of the work the more tempting a target it is […] What is there to choose between a painting or a statue, however perfect it might be, and the corruption of an innocent heart?” (Salon of 1767)

In these past times, not a soul is shocked by the fact of art’s submission to a political authority judging on grounds of morals and the public good.  The same is not true today: why?

This is the very question I would like to examine here.  The task is tricky, for the question of censorship is merely the hidden part of the problem.  What often remains unseen, or seen murkily, are the values and value systems underlying the opposing views.  Noisily polemical and readily visible from a media standpoint, censorship is part of a complex interrogation at the crossroads of aesthetics and politics.  It deals with the nature of art, with the powers and functions (or absence of functions) of the same; it deals with the State’s mission, with the government’s role in moral preservation and with public arts financing, etc…

Both supporters and opponents of censorship put forth arguments whose values are the causes and the reasons for their respective positions.  I would like to show here that the censorship debate makes apparent certain values, values that are more or less implicitly our own.  More specifically, the debate reveals conflicts between these values.


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In the following essay,  French philosopher Ruwen Ogien presents his case against the current trend toward "chic censorship." He argues that sexual explicit representations should not be held to a higher standard than texts with other content when it comes to their artistic merit. (Le texte original peut être téléchargé ici )

In modern Western societies, the production, diffusion, and consumption of explicit sexual representations in texts and images have always been more or less controlled or repressed by governments, certain central institutions such as the Church, or quite simply by “public opinion.”

But there have always been exceptions.

For some time, artistic quality or aesthetic feeling have justified some exceptions.

One might say that a new form of censorship and/or self-censorship has been invented: “chic censorship,” or aesthetic moralism. The two foundational principles are the following:

  1. “Artistic” sexual representations are good;“non-artistic” sexual representations are bad.
  2. Sexual representations that seek to produce an “aesthetic sentiment” are good. Sexual representations that seek only to arouse sexual excitement are bad.

            I disagree with these two principles, and consequently I challenge “aesthetic moralism.” Why?

            Let us begin with the reasons for rejecting the first principle.

Today, in France, a visual or literary work that is judged “pornographic” may bring its author three years in prison and a non-trivial fine (75,000 euros) if it can “be seen or perceived by minors,” as the law puts it. Beyond that, there is the famous “X rating,” which imposes financial penalties on films said to be “pornographic” and denies them access to normal distribution channels.

But what is “pornographic”? This is an important question, in the current legal context, because it has an impact on the economic fortunes of certain films and on the well-being of certain citizens.

Is every filmed, close-up, well-lit, non-simulated representation of a genital sexual relationship  “pornographic” and apt to bring penalties to those who show it without taking precautions?


In reality, to characterize an explicit sexual representation as “pornographic” in legal terms generally amounts to declaring it devoid of all “artistic merit” or of all “redeeming social value,” according to criteria of which the least one can say is that they lack consistency and clarity.


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…will be with us at Invisible Dog on saturday!

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All participants to this remarkable panel have amazing stories to tell and deep insights into how the brain creates mind. I will focus on Susan Barry’s experiences because they are remarkable and very interesting. Her book challenges the opinion of those who insist that the brain is strongly genetically determined and static after a critical period of development. Her book also provides concrete challenges for researchers like myself who try to understand how the amazing plasticity of our human brain is possible.

My own perspective is that of a roboticist and AI researcher, trying to understand perception, conceptualization and language by building operational models and doing experiments with robots interacting with each other in language games. Neuroscientists or philosophers often critize this approach but understanding some aspect of nature by building models is a path to knowledge that is as effective as pure observation. Moreover mental capacities cannot be simply reduced to neurobiology, partly because the body, the ecological environment and other individuals play a big role in shaping how we see the world, think and act, and partly because mind and culture form an emergent level of their own.

Susan Barry’s tale describes how she was able to regain 3D vision at a late stage in life. Being a keen observer and a neuroscientist herself, she interweaves her narrative with many deep insights into the brain in general and vision in particular. Let me comment and amplify some of her observations.

A first important insight coming out of her experience is that the brain is not a strictly modular system. Usually there are many differentstrategies for handling an important function and all possible sources of knowledge are brought to bear as quickly as possible to the task. This is what makes the brain so robust, adaptive and flexible. We have learned the same lesson in building vision systems for autonomous robots. Robots need this for navigation, grasping objects, or for communication, for example to understand a request like "Pick up the block behind the box". Many systems for stereo-vision have been devised using two cameras. But then a hugely complex collection of information processing must still take place. Images from the two eyes must be compared to make an estimate of the depth of each point in the visual field using basic geometry. It turns out that this is already an extraordinary achievement and requires substantial computation. The visual process must find back which image points (usually called pixels) in the right and left image correspond to the same object in the world and this in turn already engages highly complex processes for segmenting the world. Segmentation and object recognition must rely on many strategies, for example based on color, shading, texture, coherent movement, etc. and even then top-down predictions on an object’s appearance need to be combined with bottom-up information flow to identify and track objects, particularly if they are moving or the observer is moving. Our robotic systems use also other methods for depth perception which do not rely on having two cameras. Specifically, we have been using a system that exploits knowing the morphology of the body, the particular positions of the torso legs, and head as well as an hypothesis about the ground, in order to establish at least the relative position of objects in space. This works just as well, so much so that some of our robots take the form of a one-eyed cyclops.


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