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Brave New Art

Artists take on corporations and the government in "Thought Crimes"

The creepy Orwellian technology of "radio frequency identification" may be coming soon to a body near you. In 2004, the FDA approved subdermal RFID chips for humans. The tags work with readers and databases to track and identify products, objects and animals. Many of the goals for this technology, such as patient medical information and kidnap prevention, sound noble. And the chips are catching on -- 170 Mexico City police officers have had them implanted, and right here at home, Spring ISD is using them on student IDs to track elementary students. But in terms of civil liberties, the slope is extremely slippery. And the U.S. Department of Defense is a major proponent of the technology.

Possibly even more unsettling, creepy Orwellian retailer Wal-Mart is leading the RFID stampede, requiring all manufacturers to implement the tags in their products, which allows the company to track merchandise from distribution center to store to, ultimately, your home. Preemptive Media, "a group of artists, activists and technologists," wants to stop the insidious spread of RFID technology. Their installation Zapped is a provocative part of the exhibition "Thought Crimes: The Art of Subversion" on view at DiverseWorks.

Curated by DiverseWorks visual arts director Diane Barber, "Thought Crimes" is a cavalcade of artwork that runs the gamut from pranks and stunts to images and objects that aim to subvert America's reigning political and corporate regimes. Combining wit and art, the work drives home important and quasi-important points. It's a welcome respite in our increasingly brave new world.

On the BBC, "Jude Finisterra, Dow Chemical 
spokesperson" -- really one of the Yes Men -- draws 
attention to the Bhopal gas-leak disaster.
Courtesy of the Yes Men
On the BBC, "Jude Finisterra, Dow Chemical spokesperson" -- really one of the Yes Men -- draws attention to the Bhopal gas-leak disaster.

Zappedpresents an informational video about the development of RFID technology, a display of "awareness" stickers and a cage of Madagascan giant hissing roaches. The roaches are the installation's subversive masterstroke. Preemptive Media attached reprogrammed RFID tags to the roaches that, if placed in a Wal-Mart store, will taint its RFID database. The group distributed the roaches (how Houston!) at the show's opening, sending them home with gallerygoers in Styrofoam coffee containers -- the perfect in-store release system.

Wal-Mart and other manufacturers are the subject of subRosa's piece Can You See Us Now? ¿Ya Nos Pueden Ver? A pair of scissors hangs from a cord on the wall next to a container of pushpins. The artists collective asks you to cut the tags from your clothes and tack them to the world map on the wall in their country of origin. Tags cut from visitors' clothes are clustered on the map in Asia and Central America.

Clothing tags made by subRosa also dangle from the board, with manufacturers' names on one side and information about their labor practices on the other. A tag with a cheery Disney logo on one side will make you see that Mulan T-shirt you bought your kid in a new light. On the back is a quote from a young Bangladeshi garment worker who describes how she and her fellow workers are sworn at, hit with sticks and jabbed with scissors by supervisors if they make mistakes. Other tags detail abuses by garment manufacturers for Nike and Wal-Mart, where a guard poked out a factory worker's eye with a stick. "Always Low Prices. Always" comes at a price. SubRosa has taken information that's out there in dry reports and driven it home in a visually and didactically effective work.

One of the most subversive works in the whole show is by the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, two guys who got their start masquerading as WTO representatives at international conferences. On the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide Bhopal gas leak disaster, Bichlbaum pretended to be a Dow spokesperson (Dow is Union Carbide's new owner) and set up an interview with the BBC, shown on video in the gallery. As "Jude Finisterra, Dow Chemical spokesperson," he stated that Dow accepted full responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy and would liquidate Union Carbide for $12 billion to compensate the more than 20,000 victims. To date those victims have received only $500 a person -- an amount Dow's actual public affairs officer has declared "plenty good for an Indian." The interview ran twice, and Dow's stock dropped by 3 percent before the company declared that, no, it really wasn't taking responsibility. The pointed stunt generated renewed attention to the tragedy and Dow's lack of action.

Other works tackle American politics. Joe Wezorek's portrait of George Bush is pointedly and poignantly created from a grid of photos of Americans dead from the Iraq war. Stephen Andrews's Iraq war drawings mine similar territory, re-presenting shocking images of torture and death in cheery colors, showing us how commonplace the appalling has become. Meanwhile, Alison Jackson uses look-alikes to stage her almost-convincing photographs, in which "George Bush" climbs onto his horse using the back of "Tony Blair" as a step, or rests his hand on "Condoleezza Rice's" thigh. And Jim Costanzo's States of Siege shows us images of protest never seen on the evening news. His collage features hundreds of photos showing resistance to the war. A father stands with a sign that reads "Bush lied, my son died." Another protester waves a placard that says "Draft Jenna."

Otabenga Jones & Associates explores "hustle-economics" in its installation The Art of the Business of Getting Over. At the opening, the collective sold bootleg CDs from a simulated 1989 Cadillac Brougham trunk and presented a shopping-cart sculpture of crap that ascends to the ceiling; old lamps, clothes, shoes and electronics create a monumental tower. On the wall, a mock-informational poster identifies and describes various strategies for getting by. Included are familiar Houston institutions like "Temporary Standby Labor" -- day labor -- and the "Coin-Operated Griot" -- those people who don't just ask you for a dollar but provide an elaborate backstory. With humor and empathy, Otabenga Jones & Associates perceptively presents an economy that's all too real for all too many people.

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