Car Culture by John Devinee

Art After 9-11: KIT's Passive Adbuction by Oxygen Smith

Collective Creative Potential by Charmian Smith

Ominous Array of Auto Objects by Sonia Barron



Car Culture by John Devinee
The Houston Press Newspaper, May 9-15, 2002, USA

In the year 2000, 41,821 people were killed and 3,189,000 were injured in an estimated 6,394,000 motor vehicle traffic crashes in the United States; 4,286,000 accidents involved property damage only.

These numbers come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which goes on to note that those fatality figures represent an average of 115 deaths per day, one every 13 minutes, and that "motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for every age from four through 33 years old." Oh, and Texas led the nation that year with 3,769 fatalities, up 7 percent from the year before.

These numbers illustrate just one price Americans are willing to pay for their love affair with the automobile -- and point out why your car has seat belts, shoulder harnesses and air bags. But look at those numbers again. Out of the nearly 6.4 million accidents, about 70 percent "involved property damage only." The occupants walked away while the vehicles paid the price. Who will speak for these mute victims?

With Autoskinning: Passive Abduction No. 5 installed in the main gallery at Diverseworks, cars and trucks have, if not an advocate, at least an observer. This is the latest, largest and last version of a project mounted by the international collaborative artists' collective KIT. Previous installations popped up in several locations around the country and abroad, but the show seems particularly appropriate in Houston, where dependence upon the automobile makes the cost of transportation the single largest item, on average, in the family budget.

Entering the gallery, you find yourself in what appears to be a schlocky '70s horror movie set. A couple of air bags hang from the ceiling, while others are stretched on the wall like animal skins (the most obvious reference to the installation's title), each bearing a mathematical formula. Eight steel-armature cubes sit on the floor, four across. Inside each is a large mound of the flour that is packed into air-bag compartments as a kind of lubricant; a circular membrane, also from an air bag and set in a Plexiglas frame, stretches across the top of the cube. Behind the cubes are rows of cocoonlike constructions made from seat covers, air bags and seat belts, hanging from their own steel armatures. Plastic tubing winds around the floor, connecting all these elements as though they were feeding one another. A creepy soundtrack of scratching noises and what sounds like some sort of breathing apparatus completes the mad mechanic's laboratory.

As do all technologies, the automobile allows us to transcend human limitations. And it's arguable that no other technology has been so successful, has so altered humankind's immediate relationship with the physical world. Indeed, in the suburban sprawl that has come to define America, the relationship between humans and cars approaches symbiosis. KIT (whose members guard their anonymity -- the collaboration's the thing) focuses on this near fusion of human and machine at its most intimate point, the automobile interior.

All the materials and components used in this installation are from wrecked vehicles, and the emphasis on safety features is deliberate. Safety features (which American auto manufacturers have always resisted) admit to a degree of hazard; they're a tacit acknowledgement of the inherent risk involved in a particular behavior or practice. (Sometimes the devices themselves aren't even safe, as we found out a few years back when air bags were breaking necks.) At the same time, they offer the occupants a sense of reassurance, even control. The most curious aspect of safety devices, however, is that they presume the transformation of the automobile into a different and unusable (read: crashed) form. Hence the logic behind the cocoonlike sculptures, suggesting metamorphosis and referencing the womb of the automobile interior. The mathematical formulas written on the air-bag "skins," formulas for measuring velocity and force and resistance, are codes of transformation as well. And the ghostly mounds of flour sitting under taut, framed diaphragms hint at a certain potentiality, too, though it's difficult to say in which direction it will manifest.

Autoskinning: Passive Abduction No. 5 measures our complicity in the creation of a world that centers so much on the automobile. The installation speaks to what society has apparently agreed is worth risking for speed, mobility and what we insist is independence. It questions our assumptions about who (or what) is in control.

If I had ten bucks for every time someone has said to me, "If I didn't have to have a car…," I'd probably have a nice down payment for one. But doesn't that sound more like codependency than a love affair?



Art After 9-11: KIT's Passive Aduction by Oxygen Smith
Latitude53 Society of Artists Newsletter, Issue.3, 2001, Canada

Opening on the 13th of September, the installation of internationally-based art collective KIT was not the art event to attend if you were looking for an experience mercifully untouched by the NYC terror attacks, and the apparent commencement of World War Three. Minutes into the World Trade Centre’s destruction, it seemed that all other mediated events, including cultural ones, had been sucked up into the metanarrative of terrorism, war and besiegement, and –at least temporarily- our everyday experience with technology, time and other people was fundamentally altered. Less obvious, though front and center on our television screens, was the central contradiction of industrial society, simultaneously disguised by and feeling the war dialogue. As part of our everyday psychological regimen, we keep technology’s dual assurances of safety and catastrophe compartmentalized through coping mechanisms. Thus, news of fatal car accident involving strangers is greeted with indifference, quickly forgotten, and/or meticulously deconstructed so that we regain mastery over the event, and once again feel safe going to work by subway or car. However, the unsurpassed scale of the 9-11 disaster (combined with its unfamiliar political dimension) made such coping mechanisms impossible to maintain, as evidenced in the palpable shock and horror in the mediated voices if announcers and pundits, even ones calling for steely-nerved attacks.

As with the collective’s earlier work, KIT’s installation Autoskinning: Passive Abduction No. 3 thrived on the shock of simultaneous presentation of these contradictory aspects of industrialized life. Deploying the endlessly renewable source material of disaster, the exhibition welcomed its own partial absorption into the meaning of the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon, and became site-specific in an unforeseen way as, that week, the meanings of ‘abduction’ multiplied horrifically.

In contrast to other parts of the world where abduction is understood as a harrowing but commonplace feature of political life, the mainstreaming of paranormal interest in North America and Europe has oddly associated abduction with marginal explanations- ‘fringe science’ like UFOlogy and conspiracy theories that explain mysterious disappearances. KIT’s abduction black-humouredly revealed in sci-fi associations: once one’s eyes adjusted to the almost completely unlit exhibition space, what appeared to be empty body bags floated out of the dark, hanging from the ceiling much like human pods that serve as food or experimental guinea pigs in Hollywood depictions of alien abduction, as in episodes of the X-Files or Ridley Scott’s Alien. The sets in these productions derive their ‘alienness’ from the role that human bodies play in them; as the subject of bioproduction, their dimension as individuals is coldly exterminated. Further suggestive of abduction, of course, was white powder pooled on the floor underneath select bags (again hinting at human liquidation-another instance of the installation’s creepy prescience).

Yet, KIT’s installation, overall, did not reconstruct a sci-fi film set. It can be argued that one function served by the plots and settings of sci-fi is to displace the viewer’s anxiety of being engulfed by the earthbound, present day, all–encompassing landscape of technology and its attendant disaster. (After a viewing of The Matrix or Blade Runner, we step out into our deeply troubled world with a sigh of relief.) While Autoskinning used the tropes of science fiction to refer to alienness, it located the essence of the alien in an earthly, industrial source: on closer examination, the pods revealed factory numerical markings on their sides, oddly shaped apertures (from behind which shone tiny lights, the room’s only illumination) and connections for industrial hosing. At this point, one realized that the bags were actually the cloth and nylon of interiors of automobiles-the inside out, padded skin of foam and carpet of one of our most ubiquitous machines. The roughly human shape of the auto interiors simultaneously implied a safe, body fitted cocoon to act as a safety cushion against disasters, and sarcophagi that were the remains of disaster, a crash that perhaps trapped and suffocated the once living people inside of them. The defamiliarization of the auto interiors pointed us toward the part of our consciousness about technology which we ritualistically attempt to keep ‘alien:’ the knowledge that accident, unforeseen events, and statistical probability will cause industrial structures to turn on us, and that we are no more immune to bad luck than the next person.

Looking back, I can’t help but think the World Trade Centre attack played out similar aesthetics, leaving behind similarly horrific ‘alien remains:’ the charred and bent grid that demarcated the windows where the living looked out into New York City, cast in the shape of a giant tombstone, under which hundreds remain buried. For most of us in North America, I feel that the phrase ‘world changed forever since Sept. 11’ really means-more so than a changed political climate –that the intellectual divide we maintain to keep the safe and lethal aspects of our structures separate in our consciousness , has now become porous. More so than terrorists, we will fear the fatal possibilities in our architecture and vehicles, even as we must trust them so that we can function in everyday life.

At the same time, the human-shaped interiors of the KIT installation seemed to comment on the way we refashion catastrophe into human narratives that fit our own subjective experience. As we replay disasters in our imaginations, we insert our own imaginative, fictional events: our selves or our loved ones on crashed jets in collapsing buildings. Rather then terror attacks destroying a large building in New York City, it is as if the planes had indirectly crashed into each person who became aware of the event. This is the emotional effect and imaginary narrative that terrorism specifically attempts to reproduce, and which the anthropomorphic forms of Autoskinning seemed to comment upon. Read this way, perhaps the KIT installation reminds us that we have agency to refashion narratives of fear into something more humane and useful.

Whereas footage from ever angle, thousands of interviews, and survivor stories give us a seamless, second-by-second history of the NYC and Washington disasters, the implied disaster in the KIT exhibition lacked references to time. One wonders: are we looking at the interiors before they are installed into automobiles, or afterwards, or literally as material diverted from their regular use into an art installation? This missing narrative, as well as the literal inside-out form of the auto interiors, pointed to yet another latent consciousness (or superstition) of technology, that every man-made object has a life of it own, either benevolent or Frankenstein-like. As more and more objects are manufactured with programming to anticipate our desires, or disappear from our awareness through ergonomic design and miniaturization, Autoskinning implies that we will become more aware of the independent life of objects, which will in unforeseen ways alter the usual intellectual demarcation we maintain between safety and disaster in the designed world.

This consciousness of the ‘life of the object’ enters the realm of a spiritual relationship with technology, but the missing history is also abducted on the material plane. Typically, we are not only surrounded by objects we are barely aware of, but when we are aware of them, their histories outside our private ownership of them are almost always completely effaced.

Viewing the exhibition in light of ruins of 9-11 raised the chilling possibility that an aesthetic dimension was intended in the terror attacks. Targets and dates were allegedly chosen for their symbolism; over and over commentators and pundits who were likely unfamiliar with Situationism, described the attacks as textbook detournement: materials of industrial society were ingenuously used against themselves.

But much as the attacks disrupted-for the time being-the synthesis of our lives with entertainment culture and its illusion of amplified realism (as in action movies and sports events), they also similarly demolished hype around extreme aesthetic practices, defining a new, gaping divide between representation and act, contemplation and expediency, exploration of possibility and nihilism. At one point in the artist talk, the KIT representative, who is also a member of the noise outfit Battery Operated, was asked by an adulatory fan, “Do you consider yourself an audio terrorist?” The representative flatly refused the label, citing the impossibility of creating such a widespread social effect with an installation. Whether the terror attacks will also force a re-evaluation of our claims for the military and political capability of art-as sites of resistance, or interventions, or other-remains to be seen.



Collective Creative Potential by Charmian Smith
Otago Daily Times, April 12, 2001, New Zealand

Submerging the individual to the group is uncommon in Western culture, but KIT, an international arts collective, goes against most usual trends. The Otago Polytechnic School of Art artist in residence and member of KIT talks to Charman Smith.

All art is influenced by films, books, and conversations and is therefore always collaborative, but it’s seldom acknowledged as such. The international arts collective, KIT, takes the idea further submerging the individuality of its members, according to Wade Walker, a founding member of the group and current artist in residence at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art.

Installing one of the group’s works at the Blue Oyster Gallery this week, he will divulge little personal information or allow his photograph to be taken. “We are not interested in personal inclinations. It’s about when people collaborate and mutate ideas together, not about individual authors, so individual photographs would be a misrepresentation of what we are,” he said. “We don’t express a personal opinion through the work. Opinion is definitely mutated, through a bunch of ideas. If there’s a dispute we wrestle – language wrestle- or, if we’re in the same place, wrestle until someone is down for three counts and submits.”

The fluid group of people from different countries and professions- artists, architects, writers, programmers, curators- has no rules or regulations. Depending on the project, from three or four to eight or nine may collaborate, but one or several people may install the work. Several members will be going to Mexico City later in the year to set up a project there. Mostly, they keep in contact by e-mail, although a few members travel wherever they are needed.

Walker, a man in his 20s or 30s, with shaved head and dressed indistinguishably from his peers, admits the personal detail that he came originally from Austria, says he has always been a nomad and has no base (although his accent reveals he is from the UK), then says it’s not relevant. From his residency here, he goes Australia, then Canada, America, France, Mexico. Members make their livings in different ways, including teaching, writing, and from grants- Canada was particularly good with council grants and philanthropic companies that sponsored equipments, he said.

KIT primarily makes installations because it likes to subvert the usual art market, which produces things with economic and social value that last for a long time. Often its projects are Web-based. A current one,, is concerned with a piece of contaminated land near Ottawa. People can draw plans on the ‘Net’ for buildings that could work on contaminated real estate, and these are communicated by satellite to a robot, which the draws them, he said.

KIT’s exhibition, Autoskinning: Passive Abduction No. 1, which opens at Blue Oyster next Tuesday, is one of a series of projects the group is doing around the world, looking at crashes as sacrifice. “Within any technological system, crash is inevitable and inbuilt, and we accept that car crashes happen. It’s a sacrifice to speed and we are willing to give up a certain amount of human loss for speed and motion.” Sacrifice has always been apparent in all cultures. Western culture sees sacrifice as something less civilized - in some tribes in Africa, it’s a real release of social tension. We look at car crashes as an equivalent type of sacrificial spectacle which happens in Western society”, he said. The reports of crashes are always expressed in the same way and that’s dangerous with any narrative-when they become codified, they become mantra-like.“We are trying to take crashes out to that disaster territory and look at how else they can be recodified or re-explained so it can be seen as something positive. We look at these things in a very black-humoured way.” For the exhibition, cars are being stripped of interior textiles-seat covers, seat belts, airbags and carpet-and remade as “auto-skins”, a token like a sacrificial animal skin, he said.

While in Dunedin, Walker is also working with another group, Battery Operated, including Thomas Couzinier from France and local musicians. They will present a sound performance on Sunday April 22 at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery before touring the country and going to Australia. Battery Operated recorded sound and videos in “non-places”- airports, railway stations, petrol stations- as if they were being chased through the buildings. The sound performance will be a mix of musique, concrete, hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass, he said.



Ominous Array of Auto Objects by Sonia Barron
The Canberra Times, June 26, 2001, Australia

Hanging much like bodybags or carcasses in an abattoir, the internal skin, seat covers, airbags and safety belts of wrecked cars have been stuck together forming an ominous assemblage of lifelike objects throughout the gallery. Compounded by the expanded sound of activated airbags the ambience is chilling.

Autoskinning: Passive Abduction No.2 comes hot on the heels of a similar installation in New Zealand. It is the creation of KIT, an artistic equivalent of a multi-national corporation. KIT describes itself as “a fluxing collaboration”, of artists, architects, writers and programmers who, while maintaining their anonymity, collaborate on site-specific and gallery installations.

What are described as core units in Canada, Britain and Australia communicate via the Internet discussing ideas and the practicalities of specific works, which are then initiated by a local unit.

KIT was included in the 1998 exhibition New Art from Britain curated by the Tate Gallery for ‘Kunstraum’ in Innsbruck , Austria and has, since about 1994, exhibited widely in North America, Europe and Australasia.

In this exhibition the analogy between the protective ‘skin’ of the ubiquitous automobile and human flesh is an immediate response. The words in the title, ‘passive abduction’, suggest our unquestioning reliance on the automobile and its so-called safety accessories.

Writing in the accompanying catalogue on the earlier edition of this exhibition, Bridie Lonie describes it as a “parody of the speed-desire-death equation, employing a carnivalesque-subaltern logic, as it both mimics and subverts, doubling submission with resistance”. She writes rather euphemistically: “Globalising programs ignore specificities, of individual life or of location”.

Ultimately you may continue the dialogue prompted by these unsettling, yet curiously fascinating objects to consider the big issues, the machinations of the automotive industry and the oil cartels. But is strikes me that it is our willing entrapment, our passive abduction, and the price we pay in human life which is the main thrust of this exhibition.