Rules of Crime: Kayle Brandon & Heath Bunting
September 18 – November 13 2004
Heath Bunting has been a problem from the beginning, long before he began working with fellow British artist Kayle Brandon. It’s not just that he has always been outside the formal logic of “official art,” choosing instead to pursue graffiti, hacking, anonymous actions, and group walks or hikes; in fact, this has given his work its special vitality. When “internet art” took off as a phenomenon in the mid 1990s, Bunting’s projects seemed lo-fi and Situationist-engaging art as an element of everyday life. Diverging from the widespread interest in the narrative and formal aspects of the internet-the screen, hypertext, appropriation, etc.-Bunting approached the medium with an explicit emphasis on undoing routine behaviors and aggressively combating commercial incursions, as evidenced in works such as Kings Cross Phone In and read_me.html.
It may be difficult for those who know little about leftist British counterculture or internet art to appreciate what a force Bunting represents, but as early as the 1980s, he developed a unique personal mission to create open, democratic systems in his work. Throughout the 1990s, his formidable presence in the internet art scene as a prankster, hacker, artist, and curator of the progressive platform irational.org was hard to ignore. He delighted in introducing new artists to the small internet art community by publishing their work, and in pushing the buttons of critics and curators by parodying them in e-mail hacks or by exploding the art world’s self-congratulatory tendencies (for example, during a 1998 presentation on the phenomenon of internet art at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Bunting showcased nonexistent Web sites from Libya and Cuba, two countries that were off the grid; the bogus addresses produced error pages, and Bunting sat down, statement made). He became a legend, a countercultural folk hero, who was one step ahead of the pack and could program or hack almost anything.
That many of his artworks, including those done with Kayle Brandon and on display at the New Museum, involve the development of subversive products only adds to his intrigue. BorderXing, commissioned by the Tate Gallery of Britain and the Luxembourg-based Fondation Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM) in 2002, explores and documents the feasibility and methods of crossing borders within Europe without legal papers or official permissions. These trips are described in rich detail on the project’s Web site (which one can access at the New Museum but is otherwise generally restricted from public view), where Bunting and his collaborators (chief among them Brandon) delineate the tactics and materials necessary for crossing several dozen international borders.
At times, the photographs boast of idyllic, gorgeous, remote scenery surrounding sun-dappled hikers eating high-protein foods before setting off on another route. At other times, cautionary advice about the dangers of ice-crossing or the more defensive border patrols is given: “Don’t run if you are seen as you will probably be shot.” While knowing how to avoid detection by dogs (for one, never urinate in the same place twice) may have been a more commonplace skill in generations past, these days, this type of knowledge is considered suspicious and criminal. In the world of Brandon and Bunting, the necessities for navigating national borders are rugged equipment, high-protein food, water, maps, and knowledge of the outdoors and tracking. For most of us, papers (visas or passports), fingerprints, or iris scans suffice. Brandon and Bunting’s organic, fluid relationship to notions of “country” are part of a great tradition of outdoor culture and historic exploration, traditions that rely on the body, survival skills, and instinct. These skills are now highly controlled, if not prohibited altogether, replaced by more abstract discourses that set legal limits for convenient, modern travel.
The clash of natural beauty and criminal behavior is amplified in Brandon and Bunting’s pocket-sized booklet Excerpts from the Botanical Guide to BorderXing (2004). In the book, they provide the means for the proper recognition and naming of many plants found along European border-crossing routes, enabling the reader to identify their characteristics, biology, and toxicity. Such knowledge is of interest to flower enthusiasts, but is also of prime concern to border crossers needing to find sources of nourishment. Just as hobbyist books detailing the secret nooks of the French coastline were hijacked by enemy forces during the Second World War, Brandon appropriates a popular type of field guide to provide a potent survival tool.
BorderXing has been only partially available to audiences since its launch at the Tate Museum in 2001. Though the project is Web-based, Bunting controls the borders of the site, giving access, at his own discretion, to people in disenfranchised countries, participants at social venues (such as museums, schools, and cafes), and those who make a special request. In a stunning reversal of the notion that information flows freely, Bunting is highly selective (and smart) about who can participate in his enclave of knowledge.
The themes of BorderXing and Botanical Guide are pressed further in another Bunting-Brandon collaboration, the Status Project. Planned for completion in 2005, the Status Project explores the various forms of legal status and their relationship to the informational debris that litters our lives (asking, for example, if one can procure a passport using junk identities such as DVD club memberships and pharmacy loyalty cards) and will include a guide to manipulating identities using the art of dataflage (akin to camouflage). In its early stages, as shown here, Brandon and Bunting appear to take the constituent forms of birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, and passports, and then abstract and distill key data, such as signatures and photographs, that have become indexes not only of legal status but also of “user profiling.”
Bunting and Brandon exhibit a libertarian attitude toward the role of art in everyday life. They have the ability to subject anything-from Web pages to botanical research to the high bureaucracy of passport procurement-to their aesthetic of openness. In fact, openness and its attendant unpredictability are central to their views on the dialectics of democracy. This spirit is evident in their joint online platform, irational.org, which not only contains the breadth of their activities but also shares their methods, materials, contacts, and suggestions.