Sunday, 4 June 2023

The Shadows of Tomma Abts

It wasn't until very recently that I had a chance to examine multiple works by Tomma Abts up close. In many of her works she uses a faded shadow effect that provides the work with a mostly realistic 3D effect. What struck me about these shadows is that it's very obvious from the actual paintings that the lighter-coloured paint is layered on top of the darker shadow part. This makes a lot of sense, painting wise, as it allows her to use broader brushstrokes and therefore better control the frayed transition from light to dark.

Tomma Abts, Feke, 2013
Detail of faded shadow, yellow layer lies on top of darker green

This is in contrast with the expected technique that many of the old masters employed, whereby the shadow is painted in afterwards by using a darker tone over a lighter ground. Such a technique leaves distinguishable brushstrokes that reveal the small movements made by the hand. Getting a good transition between various tones in this way is a complex task that requires a lot of experience and its exact appaerance is often characteristic of the artist.
Such traces are absent in Abts' work simply because she uses a different technique that is most effective with a large area of flat colour.

Hans Holbein the younger, Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, 1526-1528
Detail of shadow around the chin

It's also worthwile to notice that these kind of frayed edges in the shadows don't appear in works by Abts that have a more complex 'ground' layer, indicating she relies solely on masking techniques in those parts to hide her brushstrokes. 

Tomma Abts, Ihne, 2012
Detail of straight shadow with clear masking residue

Overall I was surprised to see how much of Abts' complex and layered work is the result of relatively basic painting techniques and it just goes to show how much can be achieved when simple methods are carried out with absolute rigour and a great deal of patience.

Thursday, 25 May 2023

Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro

Within chemistry there is a very important number, known as Avogadro's number. This number, 6.022×1023, is so large that it almost defies human comprehension. As a result, there have been many attempts at finding an adequate analogy to correctly convey the scale of Avogadro's number.

Most of these analogies have the same shortcoming, however, which is that they express this number in other abstract entities that humans have no intuitive conception of. 'The number of millimetres of water on earth', for example, or 'adding hydrogen atoms on a balance every second since the big bang', or various references to the circumference of the sun. While it certainly conveys that Avogadro's number is a really big number, it doesn't really make it any clearer exactly how big of a number Avogadro's number is. I don't have a good feel for how big the circumference of the sun is, nor would I be able to make a good guess how many millilitres of water there would be in the three lakes close to my house, let alone in the oceans.
None of these analogies thus give a realistic sense of the scale of Avogadro's number, even though that's the only purpose such an analogy could have. When making analogies it's important to reference objects or situations that people can picture easily and preferably have hands-on experience with.

I would thus propose the following analogy for Avogadro's number:
First you take the world's largest cargo ship, that has a capacity of 24,000 containers, each measuring a standard 'TEU' of 6,1 meters long, 2,44 meters wide and 2,59 meters high.
Then you imagine that every single one of these containers is filled with grains of rice. This would give you about 3000 billion grains of rice on the whole ship.
Then you multiply this number by the amount of pages in the Library of Congress, which according to their website is about 10 billion. So that for every single grain of rice in that cargo ship, there is a Library of Congress' worth of pages.
This would give us a total of about 3×1023 pages, so we still need at least another cargoship filled with rice's worth of pages in the Library of Congress in order to get close. If after this doubling we then add another few hundred thousand billion, then you have arrived at Avogadro's number. 

Now this hopefully gives you some sense on exactly how unimaginable Avogadro's number is.
So what does this number indicate, you may ask? The exact definition of Avogadro's number has changed a number of times throughout the years, but simply put Avogadro's number is the amount of atoms present in twelve grams of carbon, or about enough carbon to fit in the palm of your hand.

Monday, 15 May 2023

Future Materials Bank

About two years ago, the Jan van Eyck academy launched a website called the Future Materials Bank. On their website they say the following about the project: 'The Future Materials Bank is an archive of materials that supports and promotes the transition towards ecologically conscious art and design practices. By collecting information and samples from makers around the world, the archive aims to inspire research and disseminate knowledge about sustainable materials.' According to the FMB, usability is also an important feature of the materials they gather, placing emphasis on ease of use and transferability of rights.

According to the landing page on the website of the Jan van Eyck academy, they further divide the materials they collect into six categories: Glues and Polymers, Pigments and Dyes, Bio-materials, Eco-synthetics, Textiles and Fibres, Cleaning Materials. Why they chose for these categories is unclear, as they don't really provide any kind of clear distinction between the entries. Many fibres will be polymers, for example, and many cleaning materials will be bio-materials. What exactly eco-synthetics are isn't defined anywhere either.

Quickly scrolling through the 300+ entries then, I would propose five alternative categories where they can be divided into: Old Materials, Specific Implementations, Bioplastics, Incomplete Understandings and Marketing Tricks.

The first category, Old Materials, speaks for itself. Many of the 'future' materials are in fact materials we have known for centuries, such as egg-tempera, indigo, wool and silk. On a small scale, all these materials have the properties the FMB aims for. Yet if there was only small-scale production in the world, then the problems the FMB wishes to address wouldn't be problems at all. On the current global scale, synthesis of these products has solved considerable problems that would arise if these old materials would be produced on the scale that the current synthetic alternatives are. For example, the more effective production of indigo and artificial fibres has created a global demand for jeans and stockings that is not feasible using only the natural occurring materials. By being less effective processes they often use more of other resources like labour, space and energy. These are equally limited, but this is presently less visible because of the highly efficient processes mankind has developed over centuries.
These old materials are sustainable on a small scale, but tend to lose that sustainability on a large scale. As it is difficult or impossible to scale them up to the volumes required in today's world, few of them can be seen as sustainable beyond simple artistic vanity projects. A good example would be animal glue, which is a perfectly good material listed in the Future Materials Bank, but only is environmentally friendly if production is kept small and/or without actively breeding and slaughtering animals for this purpose. By the same logic the FMB uses in these cases, ivory is a perfectly sustainable material, since elephants are a renewable resource. That's clearly not the way they should be reasoning.

The second group, Specific Implementations, is very large and consists of specific uses the artists and designers have found for what tends to be rather general material descriptions. Despite the primary assertion in FMB's policy that the listed materials should have a high degree of usability, which is defined as 'how accessible and transferable the knowledge required to work with a material is in different contexts', these 'materials' are barely materials at all, but rather a non-transferable particular use of a material that's already widely available.
An example is a project titled ReCoil. 'ReCoil is an elliptical centrepiece dining table. It is made entirely of precious reclaimed Hydrowood timber veneer offcuts.' So offcuts from industrial veneer creation is the 'material' and the designer makes a large table out of these thin, long off cuts. The adhesive that's necessary for this transformation isn't specified, but the table is finished with 'resin'. Now it might be me, but making a table out of thin sheets that have to be doused in very likely toxic and harmful resin hardly seems like a sustainable alternative. Especially considering the fact that such offcuts are already used in a similar process that's more effective and less polluting, namely the production of materials like fibreboard which do end up having multiple different uses. The creator has thus not brought a 'future material', but rather a more polluting, yet beautiful, alternative to current practices.

Another way that it can be seen that many entries are simply Specific Implementations, rather than materials of general use, is in the high degree of duplicate entries of materials. Seventeen of the 315 entries have 'mycelium' as the principal constituent, another eleven use paper pulp, ten more use eggshells and another nine use human hair. At least nine others describe bacteria in general wording. That's more than 60 of the 315 'future materials', that are in fact only five materials.

The next big category is Bioplastics. And it is true that bioplastics are important for the global future. Their inclusion here is a bit odd, however, as the main problem that bioplastics can solve is that they might make it easier for plastics to be removed from the environment. This is only an issue in applications like packaging, where the plastics are quickly and indiscriminately thrown away. One of the main characteristics of plastics is that they degrade very slowly. This makes them extremely long lasting and durable, which is a plus, not a con, if they are in fact used for a long time. This durability is only problematic once the plastic is discarded. I thus must ask, who are these artists who are making work with the idea that it will be thrown away shortly after their creation?
Is it then not better to do the world a favour and keep that brilliant idea inside your head?

Incomplete Understandings is a bit of a strange category, that should ultimately have no presence in such a databank, but at the present time there are quite a few, explicable, misconceptions and oversimplifications floating around on the website.
Once again I will give a random example that states that 'plastics like PET and PP are increasingly recycled for high-grade applications but HDPE is mostly down-cycled.' And so their supposed solution is to make 'yarns for closed-loop textile products out of HDPE sourced from household waste'.
Despite the indignation of the authors, there are valid chemical reasons why 'HDPE is mostly down-cycled'. HDPE gets its characteristics from having a high degree of crystallinity, which means that its long chains of molecules are (mostly)  neatly arranged in rows. This is in contrast with LDPE, where the chains of the same molecule resemble something more along the lines of a bowl of spaghetti. As recycling in practice means nothing more than taking this chain apart and randomly putting it back together, it's easy to see why HDPE is less recyclable as through pure chance you're far more likely to end up with something that resembles a bowl of spaghetti than a number of neatly stacked rows.
At the same time, both PET and PP have a chemical structure that requires their polymer chains to take on a more linear form. As you might expect, such a linear chain is much more suitable for recycling and being spun into yarn than the tangled spaghetti or organised rows of LDPE and HPDE.
It's not that it's impossible to make yarn out of HPDE, it's that it's ineffective and thus somewhat wasteful compared to other possible applications. Making yarn out of recycled HDPE is thus definitely not something you would want to be doing on a large scale and that's a chemical reality no amount of creativity is ever going to change.

While this kind of misconceptions can be forgiven, there is another category that is more fundamentally wicked and these are the Marketing Tricks.
There are a number of products on the FMB's website that can only be classified as marketing gimmicks with mildly to grossly misleading product information. I don't want to promote any of these awful business practices, but one of them is a solvent that is a 'citrus alternative to gum turpentine or white spirit, used for thinning oil paint and cleaning brushes.' The 'citrus' in this case is stated in the product information as 'Citrus Terpenes', also known as lemonene. Lemonene is flammable, causes skin irritation, can be deadly if droplets enter into the lungs and it is extremely poisonous to aquatic organisms. While a small amount of lemonene is present in the peel of citrus fruits, that doesn't mean that the pure product is automatically healthy.
A further description at the FMB reads that 'it does not contain any Aromatics or CFC's and it is non-flammable, non-toxic and biodegradable with low VOC's'. All these things are also true for regular turpentine, as turpentine is made up of terpenes, which are cyclohexenes that are specifically non-aromatic and CFC's are only used in spray paints as an aerosoliser, so that the lack of CFC's is irrelevant to this type of solvent.
Non-flammable in this context means that its flash point lies above 37,8ºC. This is thus technically correct, but please bear in mind that this is also true for jet fuel and diesel.
These kind of aliphatic hydrocarbons are generally considered biodegradable by definition. Gasoline is considered biodegradable for similar reasons, but that doesn't mean you should start dumping in forests.
'Low VOC's' is a legal term, which in the United Kingdom means that it does in fact contain a significant amount of VOC's, although less than 5%. Looking at the product data it says the product has a boiling point of 190-280ºC and yet the 'liquid will evaporate readily'. Such a wide range of boiling points indicates a mixture with many different compounds and that despite it's >190ºC boiling point it will evaporate readily is an indication that it contains quite a lot of components that have significantly lower boiling points. Those components are also known as VOC's.
It thus seems that the brief information provided by the FMB's website does little to distinguish the product from regular turpentine and also gives virtually no indication that its considerably safer. A quick visit to the manufacturer's website reinforces these suspicions.
Chemicals that are, or can be, considered harmful are required to be accompanied by a Safety Data Sheet (SDS), which provides information about the safety of a product through standardised protocols. This allows for accurate checking and comparison of potentially harmful products. The manufacturer indicates that its product requires an SDS, but also state that 'SDS are supplied ONLY to Retailers and Distributors of our product.' This is borderline illegal as it actively withholds information that they are required by law to make readily available and the information which they do provide on their website is clearly meant to downplay possible dangers. It is for example repeatedly stated that their product falls in the safest category of harmful materials, while it blatantly attempts to ignores the fact that this also means that it's nevertheless considered a harmful material.
I've already said more about this product than I have ever wanted to do, but it should be clear that it is not the miracle solution the manufacturer claims it to be. In all likelihood it is safer than turpentine, but only in the same way that drinking nine glasses of wine will make you less drunk than drinking ten.
Probably the least harmful alternative to turpentine and white spirit is acetone or possibly ethanol. After all, there's a reason why they're widely used as cleaning solvents in laboratories. Yet somehow I don't feel like this would be the kind of sustainable material that the FMB would be willing to accept.

Overall I would thus argue that the Future Materials Bank, in its current form, is somewhat incompetent and unable to attain its goals. Some concepts are misrepresented and other misleading information is not filtered out. In some cases such misunderstandings are even actively promoted, while much of the factually correct information is insignificant or irrelevant to their larger goal of 'supporting and promoting the transition towards ecologically conscious art and design practices'.
I more than welcome the idea of creating such a databank of sustainable solutions, but as I've said many times before on this blog, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Kows and Cats

CATPC and Renzo Martens will be the Dutch entry for the Venice Biennale of 2024. In light of this announcement I'm reminded of something their gallerist Alexander Koch wrote in the book 'CATPC' from 2017: 'it is becoming clear how different the social, economic and contentual dimensions of these sculptures appear when looked at from different points of view. Our gallery KOW is one of those locations where social and economic inequality can be critically reflected on from a position of privilege.'
He goes on to say that: 'any such attempt to reorganise the art world's ideological parameters, symbolic capitals, material resources, and social privileges so that they actually reduce inequality rather than increase it will inevitably involve pitfalls. This particular model has a number of economic aspects, one of which is that 50 percent of the profits from the sale of the CATPC's sculptures flow to Lusanga, while the other 50 percent remain, as is usual, with the gallery in Berlin. This is not about creating an exception to the rule, but rather a different constellation of actors and relationships.'

The particular phrasing of 'as is usual', reminds me of another text from about sixty years earlier. Marcel Broodthaers speaks about his gallerist on the invitation to his first-ever exhibition, saying: 'if I sell something, he'll take 30%. These are, it seems, normal conditions.' We can sense Broodthaers' indignation at the workings of the gallery system and by explicating that this high commission is business as usual, he reassures us, and perhaps himself, that he isn't being exploited.

If sixty years ago the mention of a thirty percent commission was still something that could rattle an audience, Alexander Koch assures us today that a fifty percent commission on all sales is a non-negotiable proposition. For all its focus on social issues and reduction of inequality, Koch and friends don't seem to wish to question the accumulation of wealth, and power, in the gallery system that has quietly occurred over the last decades and which has done nothing but deepen the links between art and capital.
Simply proclaiming such self-serving business choices as inescapable truths is about as far from facilitating any 'attempt to reorganise the art world's ideological parameters' as one could get.

Monday, 13 March 2023

Write the fine print.

This was going to be a post about the complications that may arise from the creation of a foundation, or stichting in Dutch, by artists or art organisations.
However, upon reading the legal text, it quickly became clear that the law actually provides quite a lot of freedom in how the statutes of such a stichting should be formalised.

Yet in my experience, art organisations quite often get in trouble down the line as the organisation changes in ways that were mandated by their own statutes. This happens even if they could theoretically have written almost anything they wanted in the statutes.
So instead of a cautionary tale about the intricacies of law, it will be a plea to please consider your statutes carefully and make sure they provide guidance and protection for the artistic and non-artistic integrity of your organisation as well as a continual focus on its core values. Because right now, a lot of you are simple copy-pasting some vague and generalised words that are considered good governance or common practice and in just as many cases those principles don't apply to what you do.