In conversation with Bill Balaskas

By Foteini Vergidou.


Bill Balaskas is a London-based artist, theorist and educator. His practice incorporates a variety of media to investigate contemporary political issues, with a particular focus on economics and the existential threats facing humanity today: climate change, global conflict, and technological dystopias.


Ferocious Urbanites met Balaskas for a conversation in response to his participation in the exhibition ‘You and AI’ of Stegi – Onassis Foundation, that took place last summer at Pedion tou Areos Park in Athens, and the release in 2020 of the publication ‘Institution as Praxis – New curatorial Directions for Collaborative Research’.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou

Bill Balaskas and Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Before the Bullet Hits the Body, 2021, ground mural (vinyl stickers) at Pedion tou Areos park, Athens, Greece. A commission by the Stegi Cultural Centre of the Onassis Foundation. Photo by Giorgos Papacharalampous, Courtesy of Onassis Stegi.



F.U.: The book ‘Institution as Praxis’, edited by yourself and Carolina Rito, outlined how curatorial and artistic practices can advance new research methods and offer new knowledge. Reading about this, I couldn’t help but think of Daniel Spoerri’s snare-pictures, where he captures a group of objects, such as plates, silverware, ashtrays and leftover food and exhibits it into one table or board. This way, Spoerri contains unrelatable objects in the same database (the table or board) and creates a new kind of classification - a new piece of information - where all these objects belong in the same category at a particular moment: that of a meal eaten by individuals. Today, our world is massively being translated into data and classified into databases that govern our lives. How important is the contribution of such cultural practices into the production of new knowledge and what drew you into this research?


B.B.: The starting point for this research has been my two “hats”: the first, being an academic who leads research within a university; and, the second, being an artist who conducts artistic research and shares it within cultural institutions. Through my work in both, I have long come to the realization that although universities are not the only sites where knowledge is produced, academics are still largely in charge of determining the “whats” and “hows” of most research projects – especially when it comes to what we call “collaborative research”.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

‘Institution as Praxis – New Curatorial Directions for Collaborative Research’ (Sternberg Press, 2020), edited by Carolina Rito and Bill Balaskas.



So, along with Carolina Rito we took advantage of our advisory roles at Arts Council England to produce a publication that has aimed at mapping the richness of knowledge production through cultural practices. To do this, we worked with colleagues from across the world to look at research-led cultural organisations, cultural programming in collaboration with universities, and research-led curating, including curating by artists. In that sense, your reference to Spoerri’s work is, actually, a very accurate visual metaphor for the book’s objective and format. We were not interested in creating a thoroughly unified image. This would have been both practically impossible and contrary to the diversity of knowledge production itself. For instance, different types of collaborative research may be identified just by looking at different types of cultural institutions: with or without collections, local, regional, national, with different models of funding and income generation, artist-run, non-profit, research-driven, event-driven, discipline-specific, and so on… Rather, what we wanted to do was to reclaim a space for cultural practitioners, as well as to invite universities to rethink how they perceive the cultural sector and collaborating with artists, curators, and cultural activists. In this process, we discovered not only differences, but also many similarities, such as the lack of time to conduct research, or the lack of a common lexicon; or, even, the richness of historical models of collaborative research which have remained dormant… So, in a way, what ‘Institution as Praxis’ has done is to recognise the existence of an underexplored database, and to suggest some directions for studying it. However, in this case, we are not talking about a database that aims at controlling people, but rather about a database that offers tools of liberating cultural practices through collaboration – a practice that neoliberal ideology has systematically undermined over the last three decades.


F.U.: In your respective chapter, ‘Networked Media And The Rise Of Alternative Institutions: Art And Collaboration After 2008’, you talk about the importance of the ‘commons’ for many cultural producers operating in countries, like Greece, where the art scene suffered profoundly by the global financial crisis of 2008. Could you give us a few examples of such cultural initiatives that are still active in Greece and have caught your attention?


B.B.: In the chapter, I document a shift in the social function of contemporary culture after 2008, which is the proliferation of material and immaterial micro-economies created by artists and cultural organisations. The idea of the commons is key in this context because it has been both informed by and resulted in new modes of collaboration. It is not surprising that such developments have been particularly pertinent to countries at the epicentre of the crisis, like Greece, Ireland, and Spain, as well as the deprived regions of other countries. This means that we can identify several common initiatives and types of initiatives, some of which are still highly relevant – for example, hackerspaces and time banks that continue operating in Greece and elsewhere in different forms.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

‘Institution as Praxis – New Curatorial Directions for Collaborative Research’ (Sternberg Press, 2020), edited by Carolina Rito and Bill Balaskas.



Also, one of the most important changes has been a new understanding of the Web and new media technologies even by very traditional institutions. In that sense, the aftermath of 2008 has been a “rehearsal” for the aftermath of Covid-19. For instance, since the outbreak of the pandemic, apart from sharing their permanent collections online, many contemporary art museums have been increasingly employing the Internet as a commissioning terrain for new works and exhibitions. This has been a prominent strategy to maintain a relationship with their audiences, as well as justify their civic role – particularly, through commissions that have invited direct responses to the crisis.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, Culture, 2013, mixed-media installation (neon, 1,000 meters of cable, socket), 200 x 180 x 80 cm.



In the case of Greece, one can think of the collaborative online exhibitions between major national institutions (National Museum of Contemporary Art, MOMus, and the National Gallery), or the commissions by the Onassis Foundation for its ‘ENTER’ online exhibition, and more… Of course, these are not new types of cultural phenomena. However, given their unprecedented scale because of the pandemic, it would be crucial to see how they might signal more permanent changes in the way that art is created and shared.


F.U.: Algorithms, particularly machine learning algorithms, are increasingly important to people’s lives, but have caused a range of concerns revolving around unfairness, discrimination and opacity. We know that AI is replicating its surrounding, but our world itself is racist, sexist and xenophobic. So, AI is becoming an entity that is reflecting all of that. The public has only relatively recently become aware of the ways in which their fortunes may be governed by systems they do not understand, and feel they cannot control. What can individuals do to regain control over their lives and how can artistic practices help bring these issues to light?


B.B.: You are right to note that the public is becoming increasingly aware of the influence of algorithms on our lives and the dangers that emanate from it. Yet, I feel that the picture is quite contradictory when it comes to what this realization actually means; or, to be more accurate, what this realization actually brings about. A neo-Luddite approach would be counter-productive; but if AI is reflecting, enhancing, and perpetuating biases and structural inequalities, then what is the best way to strike a balance between not exiling technology and changing its orientation? I am not sure if I have a truly good answer to this question. This problem has been vividly reflected over the last couple of years in the Covid-19 crisis, where we have seen how science, pseudo-science, and the manipulation of both for political and economic gain have intersected with the use of networked media…


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, The market will save us, 2013, banner/intervention on the façade of the Royal College of Art, London, 23.4 x 6.8 m. Photo by Dominic Tschudin.



Of course, there are still great potentialities when it comes to educating different audiences through art – making people even more aware of what one can find inside the algorithmic black box, and what is happening because of it. Knowledge should not be underestimated, especially when it is effectively shared. It can generate considerable pressure on corporations, regulators, governments, and international organisations to take greater responsibility and implement structural changes. This can have significant impact on the issues that you mention – racism, sexism, xenophobia, unfairness… My only concern, though, is that when it comes to certain other areas directly affected by human activity, like the environment and climate change, it might be too late to engage meaningfully in this process of “regaining control”. I am not sure if our technocultural paradigm, which led to the problem in the first place, is able to even consider making a meaningful shift to save humanity and so many other species from unprecedented pain and catastrophe. In other words, even exiling “bad” technologies and adopting “good” ones might still not work out.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, Red Air, 2019, mixed media installation based on the repurposed letters of the TOYOTA advertising signs that used to be installed on the Cork Opera House fly-tower (metal, plexiglass, soil, wood, sand and red flowers), dimensions variable. Created in collaboration with environmentalist and agriculturalist groups of Cork.



F.U.: I find it very interesting to think about how once something becomes a data set; a lot of its context somehow changes. However, when data is overlooked or not understood properly, it creates false results and because of the way it is framed, it looks like it’s correct while in reality it’s not. This can lead to dangerous outcomes, when considering current practices, such as people’s profiling via face recognition systems, discriminative algorithms for employment, crime monitoring and predictive policing, to name a few. The work ‘Before the bullet hits the body’, a collaboration you did with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, as part of the exhibition ‘You and AI’, exposes LAPD’s infamous algorithm of predictive policing. Could you tell us a bit more about this project?


B.B.: Yes, of course. The work took its title from the seminal 2018 report by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which led to the dismantlement of “predictive” policing programmes run by the Los Angeles Police Department. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition is a remarkable volunteer-run grassroots organization, whose campaigns and successfully fought court cases revealed the racial bias of LAPD’s algorithmic policing.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas and Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Before the Bullet Hits the Body, 2021, ground mural (vinyl stickers) at Pedion tou Areos park, Athens, Greece. A commission by the Stegi Cultural Centre of the Onassis Foundation. Photo by Giorgos Papacharalampous, Courtesy of Onassis Stegi.



The algorithm at the epicentre of LAPD’s predictive policing was exhibited at Pedion tou Areos park in the form of a ground mural. It is supposed to “predict” an urban area’s expected rate of crimes based on its historical average combined with recent trends. The Coalition’s work expanded the critique of LAPD’s algorithm beyond simply questioning the “feedback loop” and, in effect, showed how police use the veneer of science to mask their violence. As a result, the Coalition was able to expose crime data as a social construct aiming to contain, control, and criminalize Black, brown, and poor communities.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Black Lives Matter Mural San Francisco by Christopher Michel. Wikimedia Commons.



These are the conditions “before the bullet hits the body”, and they have regularly led to incidents of police brutality like the killing of George Floyd in 2020, which ignited the global protests of Black Lives Matter. The installation at Pedion tou Areos adopted the visual language of the protests, which featured slogans written on major roads in the U.S. in bright yellow fonts.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas and Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Before the Bullet Hits the Body, 2021, ground mural (vinyl stickers) at Pedion tou Areos park, Athens, Greece. A commission by the Stegi Cultural Centre of the Onassis Foundation. Photo by Giorgos Papacharalampous, Courtesy of Onassis Stegi.



I should also mention that along with the installation at the park, the project consisted of a presentation of the work of the Coalition on Stegi’s website, which I curated, and two online discussions organised by the Coalition.


Working with the group has been a truly inspiring and often-humbling experience… Showing the reality on the ground across the Skid Row neighbourhood and the actual people suffering because of algorithmic policing has been our main goal from the very beginning. But, it has also been a creative challenge, because this is, in fact, a very complex issue, and, therefore, rather difficult to present in all of its dimensions through a single medium. Algorithmic policing is not simply about race, but also about money and transforming the city. I would invite everyone to read the report of the Coalition, because it reveals not only the racial bias of LAPD’s predictive policing programmes, but also how these intersect with gentrification and the redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles by various contractors…


F.U.: Throughout your practice, you use a variety of mediums to deliver the message you want to convey, from HD video, like ‘Parthenon Rising’ (2010) and installations containing found objects and original pieces, like ‘Farewell to thee’ (2019), to the latest large-scale ground mural ‘Before the Bullet Hits the Body’ (2021). How do you choose the medium you will work with each time?


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, Parthenon Rising, 2010, High Definition Video, 4’ 02’’ (video still).



B.B.: Because of the different media that I am using and their combinations, this is, actually, a question that I am being asked quite often. My usual reply is that the content of each work informs its medium, which – in most cases – is a very accurate and honest account of what is happening… However, I have been thinking lately of the independence of visuality, or – to be more precise – its “sovereignty”. What I mean is that we should never forget that the medium is foremost and before anything else a visual encounter for the audience. Yet, there is a contradiction here that has to do with our time. On the one hand, visuality can attain its independence through the heightened power of what I call “the distributed image” – an image whose power emanates from the distributed network that is the Internet.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, Farewell to thee, 2019, mixed media installation: 10 iPhone 8 Plus cases printed with images of nuclear bomb tests; 2 LED sign panels featuring the mobile phone alert messages sent across the State of Hawaii on 13 January 2018; bamboo curtain / entrance cover; and 38-minute sound file of slowed-down version of the song “Aloha ʻOe” (“Farewell to Thee”); dimensions variable (installation at Phoenix Leicester: 5.5 x 8.4 m).



However, the authority of the image is also time-sensitive – it might get lost as soon as the next post goes online, or the next viral image emerges. One might claim that in principle this has always been the case. However, the compression of time that we experience through online media functions in a way that can be unpredictable, to say the least.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, Farewell to thee, 2019, mixed media installation: 10 iPhone 8 Plus cases printed with images of nuclear bomb tests; 2 LED sign panels featuring the mobile phone alert messages sent across the State of Hawaii on 13 January 2018; bamboo curtain / entrance cover; and 38-minute sound file of slowed-down version of the song “Aloha ʻOe” (“Farewell to Thee”); dimensions variable (installation at Phoenix Leicester: 5.5 x 8.4 m).



So, returning to your original question, I am choosing the medium I work with each time based on the theme that I want to explore or the argument that I want to formulate. But, I am increasingly integrating into this process the time-sensitivity of the composition and its media. Not in the sense that a medium might become obsolete, but rather in the sense that a medium might require additional support to fulfill its function within an image-saturated world. Of course, “additional support” doesn’t always mean adding – it might equally mean removing elements from a work or a “composition”.


F.U.: What do you hope for people to take away when they see your works?


B.B.: The same thing that I hope for my students: to see their world from a different point of view, even momentarily. For some of them, this “new view” might ignite an immediate reaction – an immediate realization of a literal truth, as this is served by the content of a work. For others, a work might become a “slow burner”, where the form will also inform the content in ways that might be more complex or, even, contradictory, until the idea behind the work “resurfaces”. And, for many people, a work will mean absolutely nothing, which is, of course, perfectly fine.

Hoping as an artist for a “result” is productive so far as this hope is not aligned with an overpowering attachment to vanity. As one would expect, this is very difficult to happen – probably, even more difficult today than in previous times due to the all-encompassing “celebrity culture” which is so enthusiastically propagated through online media… But it seems to me that vanity in an artist can only stand the test of time when the artist’s talent is larger than their vanity… I do not consider myself to be an exceedingly talented artist – at least, not in the traditional sense of having been “touched by God”… So, my hopes are kept on the ground, even though my eyes are regularly scanning the sky… Not for God, of course… Hahaha.


Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, Apertures, 2018, neon installation, 100 x 200 cm. Created in the context of Italy's permanent WWI centenary exhibition ‘Quando scoppia la pace’ (‘When peace erupts’). Based on the design of an Alpine military mask displayed in Museo della Battaglia of Vittorio Veneto - the site of the Great War’s last battle. Cultural Ambassador of the Greek national representation: National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST).



Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

The Apline military mask from the First World War, on which the design of the neon installation is based (Museo della Battaglia, Vittorio Veneto, Italy).



Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, Anarchy near the UK, 2016, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Frame: amended front page of The Sun newspaper (25 January 2016). Display case: Manchester United mug; Lotto ticket; baby-boy pacifier; mask of One Direction singer Harry Styles; a copy of 'Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?' (2012); and a t-shirt designed by celebrity personality and model Kendall Jenner.



F.U.: Any exciting news you would like to share?


B.B.: Yes – the forthcoming publication of my new book, which I am once again co-editing with my dear colleague Carolina Rito. It is titled ‘Fabricating Publics: the dissemination of culture in the post-truth era’, and it will contain contributions by thinkers and cultural practitioners whom I personally consider very exiting – Terry Smith, Steven Madoff, Forensic Architecture, Gregory Sholette, Natalie Bookchin, to name a few… It is much more heterogeneous in its format than my previous book, ‘Institution as Praxis’, and, perhaps, more “poetic” because of its visual and authorial diversity... The contributions were predominantly written before the pandemic, which was an event that caused several delays to the publication, as we had to grapple with so many unpredictable situations and human pain… But, at the same time, such delays ended up providing the book with some essential “breathing space”. This can be very useful when trying to demystify phenomena such as “fake news”, “alternative facts”, “Trumpism”, conspiracy theories and so on from a critical distance. In this way, I feel that the book incorporates somewhat “discretely” the still-forming lessons from the Covid-19 period.



Ferocious Athens, Ferocious Urbanites, Bill Balaskas, Foteini Vergidou, Kalfayan Galleries

Bill Balaskas, Farewell to thee, 2019, mixed media installation: 10 iPhone 8 Plus cases printed with images of nuclear bomb tests; 2 LED sign panels featuring the mobile phone alert messages sent across the State of Hawaii on 13 January 2018; bamboo curtain / entrance cover; and 38-minute sound file of slowed-down version of the song “Aloha ʻOe” (“Farewell to Thee”); dimensions variable (installation at Phoenix Leicester: 5.5 x 8.4 m).


F.U.: Thank you Bill!


B.B.: Thank you for your questions, Foteini!


 

Bill Balaskas is represented by Kalfayan Galleries, Athens – Thessaloniki.


Balaskas is an Associate Professor and Director of Research, Business and Innovation at the School of Art & Architecture of Kingston University, London.


Before the Bullet Hits the Body’ (2021) was commissioned by Stegi, Onassis Foundation.


Institution as Praxis - New Curatorial Directions for Collaborative Research’ is edited by Carolina Rito and Bill Balaskas and is published by Sternberg Press in collaboration with Nottingham Contemporary.


https://www.billbalaskas.com/