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Saturday Art: Toxic Forest (#SXSWEco)

12:32 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Chris Jordan's Toxic Forest

Toxic Forest is an image constructed from photos of 139,000 cigarette butts. Click for larger view.

See more of Kit’s SXSW Coverage.

When a tanker runs aground or a pipeline spills, the mainstream media still attempts to cover the story. But other kinds of pollution have a less TV-friendly narrative because they are continuous ongoing issues. Legacy, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the health impact of smoking, commissioned Toxic Forest from artist Chris Jordan to help visualize one such problem.

Every 15 seconds, 139,000 cigarettes are smoked and discarded in the United States, many of them improperly. “They are the most discarded item on beaches, waterways and roadways,” Sarah Shank, a Senior Communications Manager at Legacy told an assembled audience while presenting the artwork at this year’s SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas.

Legacy initially focused on the prevention of childhood smoking and helping smokers give up their addictions. But recently, the organization added a new goal — finding a solution for the problem of cigarette waste. 360 billion cigarettes are smoked every year. and in one survey, three quarters of smokers admitted to disposing of cigarette butts on the ground or out a car window. Despite popular belief to the contrary, discarded cigarette butts do not biodegrade. They take years to break down and, when they finally do, merely break apart into smaller pieces of plastic. Anyone who has ever participated in a cleanup effort on a road, beach, or anywhere else will vividly remember picking up butt after butt — or the plasticy fluff they turn into with time. In 2010, the Ocean Conservancy reported collecting over a million butts in their annual cleanup efforts, over 31% of the total trash collected.

Toxic Forest shows a forest made of photocollaged butts.

Toxic Forest (Detail)

At a distance, Toxic Forest appears to be an attractive but unremarkable woodland scene. As the viewer approaches, it slowly resolves into a strange pattern of whites and darks, flecks of color mingling. At last, up close, one can see that this collage isn’t just meant to symbolize waste but actually constructed out of waste. Forest is literally made from 139,000 photographs of individual cigarette butts, collected as garbage in Austin and Seattle. Jordan then created the cunning photo collage that drew many visitors outside SXSW Eco’s trade show throughout the event.

Jordan is known for this technique of using photocollage to symbolize American consumerism and wastefulness. Most of his work is grouped into series like Running the Numbers, which mixes garbage with high finance and other images of the American Way. His Midway series depicts the death of baby albatrosses that are fed plastic by their mothers, and an accompanying film launches soon. Toxic Forest fits perfectly into this oeuvre. Gazing upon Toxic Forest, I imagined those moments in my life when I’d hiked into a wooded lot or forested state park and found myself in some place of almost intolerable natural beauty — only to have my reverie come crashing down upon the discovery of a crumpled beer can and a pile of discarded cigarette butts. More seriously, both animals and human infants have been known to consume butts with neurotoxic effects.

Legacy recently launched a scholarly journal, Tobacco Control, to bring scientific research to the issue of cigarette butts. It’s full of research papers with titles like “Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish.” Since this is crucial but not especially approachable work for the average cigarette consumer, they’ve also partnered with the Leave No Trace Center to create a series of public service announcements. You can view one of them below.

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Saturday Art: 999 Eyes Modern Freak Show (#ArtOutside)

1:08 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

What is normal? What does it mean to be a freak, by choice or by birth?

FREAK, n., A human oddity that has chosen to share, celebrate, and exploit his/her own genetic anomaly through performance. -999 Eyes

999 Eyes really caught my eye this year. I also attended Art Outside in 2011 and this modern freak show performed both years, but this time I looked at them in new ways. During the last 12 months, I’ve gotten increasingly involved with activism, sometimes around disability issues. Although I have a physical disability (fibromyalgia), it is what is called an ‘invisible disability‘ — unless I am using a cane that particular day, you probably can’t look at me and tell there’s anything different about me. As a person in my mid-thirties with a stylish cane, many even assume I am using the device for fashion rather than necessity. During the last year, my work in Occupy — and with our allies in ADAPT — has made me more acutely aware of the challenges people with all kinds of disabilities face in our society.

A colorfully dressed freak performs in front of a band.

Black Scorpion performs a stand-up routine set to music.

Much of modern disability activism is about giving the disabled not just the ability to survive, but the ability to live with dignity — to be respected, employable, able to live independently in their own homes and treated like human beings. The conventional image of the historic freak show does not necessarily fit with this ideal, suggesting that the people in these shows were exploited and objectified. Our cultural approach to the visibly different is often two-faced; look at Tod Browning’s infamous 1932 film Freaks, which on the one hand goes to lengths to show the humanity of its subjects while simultaneously turning them into objects of horror, especially during the film’s rainy finale.

A performer with neurofibromatosis

Peg-o the Leg-o, a performer with neurofibromatosis, educates the audience about his condition.

Yet what is exploitation when it comes to entertainment? A musician who is especially beautiful by conventional standards could be said to exploiting appearance in his career. 999 Eyes performer Vlad Vendetta and founder and musician Samantha X both made the argument to me that all performance is inherently exploitative – as indeed one can make the argument that all work is exploitative under capitalism. 999 Eyes was founded by its freaks, when musicians Dylan Blackthorn and Samantha X met future 999 Eyes costars like Jackie of All Trades (a.k.a. ‘the Human Tripod’) and Peg-o the Leg-o, the ‘Modern Elephant Man.’

A preserved two-headed calf

This two-headed calf is part of the 999 Eyes collection of oddities.

It continues as a freak-driven show. In addition to classic sideshow performances like sword swallowing, the freaks talk about their conditions, cracking jokes and opening minds. Ken “Peg-o” Pittman tells audiences how he is treated during his day to day life. Born with neurofibromatosis, he has been kicked out of pools and other public places for fear that the growths the condition causes are caused by contagious illness. When speaking to him and observing his interactions with fellow performers as well as spectators, it’s easy to speculate that his life at this sideshow, where people are encouraged to learn rather than fear, is far-more dignified. Are these freaks exploited when they run the show and use it to illuminate the uneducated?

A dictionary in the side show

A tongue-in-cheek entry in the sideshow tent. "It is called a dictionary, and it is used to dissect words in order to discover their spelling, meaning, usage, etc. It is closely related to the thesaurus and the dinosaurus."

Samantha X told the Winona Daily News:

She hopes the show changes people’s perceptions while it entertains. “I think it’s absolutely fascinating all the different ways people come out genetically.” Samantha said. “A freak is somebody blessed with nature’s art.”

Making this short film about 999 Eyes certainly challenged my preconceived ideas and brought to light some internalized ableism. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Find more from 999 Eyes at

Photos by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.

Saturday Art: Bleep Labs’ Noise Explorer 5000 (#ArtOutside)

1:09 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

More of the art of Art Outside 2012: Flam Chen New-Circus Troupe, the Web of Wishes 

Saturday afternoon at Art Outside 2012, electronic artist and musician Thomas Fang took me on a tour of the Noise Explorer 5000, an interactive sound installation. Created by Austin’s Bleep Labs, it features homemade electronic musical instruments combined with ‘circuit-bent’ classics from the 1980s — Casio keyboards, drum machines, and childhood ephemera like the Speak & Math.

Two Bleep Labs Noise Explorer Users play with the instruments

Thomas Fang (right) guides two users of the Bleep Labs Noise Explorer 5000.

The Noise Explorer can be used by up to two explorers at its side-by-side stations. The users listen on headphones and can mix the levels of individual instruments or warp the sounds with effects pedals. The results can be recorded and played back later. The DIY art of circuit-bending  — modifying existing electronic objects into quirky instruments and aural art —  has been growing in popularity, but Fang suggests that an installation like this lets new people gain hands-on experience of its possibilities.

Circuit-bent Touch & Tell instrument with a photo of Snoop Dogg added

Circuit-bent Touch & Tell instrument

One of Fang’s most well known installations is the Furby Youth Choir, where he skinned and altered the childhood toy to create a flock of undead furbys that chirped, babbled, and sang in shrill tones to each other. In the Noise Explorer, repurposed toys like this Touch & Tell beep and talk in otherworldly, glitched up voices.

A tiny blinking 'robot' like box, the Thingamagoop features a blinking LED and light sensor

The Bleep Labs' Thingamagoop

One of the stars of the Noise Explorer soundscape is the Thingamagoop. Unlike the circuit-bent devices, it is a homemade creation of Bleep Labs. An LED light hangs from a tentacle-like protrusion at the top of this whimsical synthesizer in a box. Its blinks fall upon the device’s light sensor, creating a panoply of weird sounds that the user controls with the many knobs and switches. The Thingamagoop’s output can even be used to control other instruments.

A user of the Bleep Labs collaborates with Thomas Fang

Thomas Fang (right) collaborates with a user of the Bleep Labs Sound Explorer 5000 at Art Outside 2012.

You can listen to and download recordings of the Noise Explorer 4000, a previous installation from Houston’s Free Press Summer Festival, or hear more from Thomas Fang on Soundcloud.

Find more from Bleep Labs at

Photos of Art Outside 2012 and the Bleep Labs’ Sound Explorer by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved. Creative Commons-licensed video by Kit O’Connell, with additional audio from the Bleep Labs Noise Explorer 4000 and Creative Commons-licensed photos by Jon Lebkowsky and Church of the Friendly Ghost.

Saturday Art: Flam Chen (#ArtOutside)

2:07 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Flam Chen is a ‘new circus’ troupe based out of Tucson, Arizona. They have their origins in Crash Worship, an anarchic performance troupe of the 80s and 90s which was heavily influential. Crash Worship inspired much of modern Burning Man culture and street performance groups like Extra-Action Marching Band, mentioned yesterday on myFDL. The new circus movement is booming right now, with aerial dance, burlesque, acrobatics (and ‘acro-yoga’), fire dancing and related arts more popular than they’ve been in decades.

Stilt-walking 'mantises' and two dancers around a fire

Flam Chen's Rites of Spring, Art Outside 2012 (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

Flam Chen combine modern dance, stilt walking, fire dancing, experimental theater and aerial dance with colorful costumes, modern projection technology and electronic music. They lead Tucson’s annual All Souls Procession, an annual participatory street festival. They expect 50,000 people to attend this year’s procession and 30,000 will participate in some way. This event trains new performers, then draws them into the streets for a weekend-long ‘Day of the Dead’ style festival.

New Stiltwalkers Take their First Steps

Flam Chen's Stiltwalking Workshop, Art Outside 2012 (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

The troupe performed twice at Art Outside 2012. On Friday night, they performed Rites Of Spring, which artistic director Nadia Hagen calls one of their seminal works. About every five years, the troupe revives and revises it for new audiences. This year’s combined fire, quadruped ‘stilt walkers’ dressed like insects, and even a gorgeous aerial silk performance. In keeping with their work at the Procession, they taught over 50 new stilt walkers their first steps during the course of the weekend.

A costumed stiltwalking woman in a balaclava

Flam Chen dancer at Art Outside 2012's Closing Ceremony (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

Flam Chen returned to close out Art Outside’s Sunday night. As the brilliant remixer Pumpkin finished a high-energy set, six members of Flam Chen appeared among the crowd wearing bright balaclavas, with the men’s woven masks looking like devils (or perhaps a Mexican Guy Fawkes). They cavorted, flipped, and danced then led the crowd into dancing with them. Finally, they encouraged the entire festival into a gigantic howling, ohm-chanting group hug.

Six colorful stiltwalkers in a circle

Flam Chen lead Art Outside 2012's Closing Ceremony (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

For more from Flam Chen, see

If you’re near Tucson, Arizona on November 2-4, be sure to check out the All Souls Procession.