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Igor Vamos

(Troy, New York, United States)

Igor Vamos, BLO Nightly News with Brian Williams, 1994 (video)
Igor Vamos, BLO Nightly News with Brian Williams, 1994 (video)
Igor Vamos, BLO Nightly News with Brian Williams, 1994 (video)
Igor Vamos, BLO Nightly News with Brian Williams, 1994 (video) Igor Vamos and The X Group, Malcolm X St Project, 1991 Igor Vamos, Rose Festival Performance, 1991
Igor Vamos lives in Albany, New York and teaches video and media arts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in nearby Troy. His work takes the form of strategic interventions in public sites and electronic networks, and experimental films that borrow from the conventions of the documentary. Since the early nineties, his various interventions, created in collaboration with such activist groups as ®™ark or Yes Men, have met with critical acclaim in the electronic and print media. His skill in staging public-art events and attracting media coverage guarantee his projects a vast audience, far exceeding the normal scope of contemporary art. Since Vamos creates the majority of his projects as an anonymous member of activist groups, it is difficult to determine his exact contribution.

Igor Vamos, Melinda Stone, Suggested Photo Spots, 1997 Igor Vamos, Melinda Stone, Suggested Photo Spots, 1997 Igor Vamos, Le Pétomane : Fin de Siècle Fartiste, 1998

In a deft undermining of current events, Vamos's first projects underscored the repressive aspects of a certain culture of commemoration. Highlights of this "guerrilla art" are compiled in the video Undeniable Evidence (1995).

In Portland in 1991, when the city was considering stripping Martin Luther King Jr.'s name off a local street, a covert organization calling itself Group X changed the name of another downtown street to Malcolm X Street in a clandestine overnight action. Vamos and his band were thus reflecting the ostracism felt by the city's African-American population. After a manifesto was released to the local media, the intervention attracted the attention of the American press.

Also in 1991, during a festival in Portland commemorating the return of troupes from the Persian Gulf, Vamos responded to the Bush government's Operation Desert Storm by hanging an enormous U.S. flag, composed of human silhouette targets, off a bridge directly in front of U.S. Navy ships. Passing himself off as a documentary maker working for a local television channel, Vamos then filmed the authorities as they dramatically ripped the flag to shreds before the homecoming audience.

Vamos is perhaps most notorious for his leading role in the activist group The Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO). In 1993, under the aegis of ®™ark, Vamos led a band of collaborators in a nation-wide media infiltration expedition. The collective purchased approximately 120 Barbie et G.I. Joe dolls, and in a painstaking operation, switched their voice boxes. Shortly before Christmas of 1993, the BLO planted the altered dolls in toy stores around the country. Vamos arranged for friends to purchase the dolls and then to contact the local media. Press coverage quickly went national, with the news departments of ABC, CBS and NBC running stories. In a final twist, an episode of "The Simpsons" featured the purchase of a talking Barbie look-alike with a G.I. Joe voice.

The following year, Vamos made a video (BLO Nightly News with Brian Williams) in the form of a television documentary, which chronicled the event. An actor-newscaster introduced various reports from correspondents throughout the United States, which combined actual clips of media coverage of the BLO with fictional segments illustrating, among other things, how to switch the voice boxes of the dolls. (1) Although the burlesque nature of these fictional segments differentiate them, their juxtaposition with news bulletins from the major American networks create the illusion that the BLO event made headlines, when in fact it was a brief news item. This type of collage parodies the manner in which the media appropriate certain events for their own commercial and entertainment purposes.

Throughout the documentary, the members of the BLO remain anonymous through technical subterfuges (scrambling certain parts of the image, using actors as spokesmen, voice-overs, etc). In one segment, an anonymous BLO member speaks through a human mouth superimposed over Barbie's, demanding the right to exist outside the sexual stereotypes imposed by the manufacturer, Matel. The inanimate object thus becomes the spokesperson for her own liberation, a rhetorical tool by which the commodity loses its reified nature to underscore the cultural strategies (and, by extension, the capitalist system) which ensure its reproduction. In addition, the film allows us to measure the impact of a critical intervention in which the artist himself has supervised all the steps of post-production (modes of distribution, target audience, media coverage, documentation).

Once again using irony as a weapon, the documentary and guidebook Suggested Photo Spots (1997), produced in collaboration with Melinda Stone and The Centre for Land Use Interpretation, records the placement of over fifty "suggested photo spot" signs for tourists across North America, at such locations as military test sites and industrial excavation centres. Other "scenic" areas: the fence running along the USA/Mexican border on Tijuana Beach, which extends well into the ocean; an abandoned oil drilling site in Utah; the New York City sludge depository (situated in Texas since there is no space left for all the sludge engulfing New York); and the waste water treatment facility of the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York.

Le Petomane: Fin de Siecle Fartiste (1998) is a film biography of the colourful fin-de-siècle music hall performer Joseph Pujol (1857-1945), a humorous deconstruction in the style of a PBS documentary. Pujol's alleged stage performances from his musical anus shocked and delighted Paris's bourgeois patrons of the Moulin Rouge. The story of this long-forgotten maestro has been resurrected from newspaper clippings and historical documents, including a film produced by the Edison company for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. The film is also a collage of fin-de-siècle Paris, with allusions to the Lumière brothers, Méliès, Satie, Jarry, Freud, the anarchists and symbolists, the growth of industrialization, and of course experts who discuss Pujol's achievement in terms of aesthetics, censorship conspiracies and the liberating effects of farts. Le Petomane has been featured at numerous festivals in United States and Canada, including the Black Maria Film Festival (1999) and the Images Festival of Independent Film and Video (1999).

Vamos is currently co-director of the Artists Residency Program and of Media Production at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (Culver City, California). A research organization involved in exploring, examining and understanding landscape issues, the Center employs a variety of methods to sensitize the American public to environmental problems and the recent socio-political history of defined geographic areas. Although based in California, the organization has research stations throughout the country, including Wendover, Utah, where the Center's residence program is located. Re-employing certain elements of the Center's guided tour of Wendover, Vamos has created a new documentary tool composed of audio and visual segments that are triggered in real time by participants in the course of their tour. The project, entitled Grounded, utilizes such advanced technologies as GPS (Global Position Systems) to illustrate the geological, political and social history underlying the Wendover region.

Vincent Bonin © 2002 FDL

(1) This text chronicles only those projects and interventions in which Vamos is clearly identified as an active participant.