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illustration Benedikt Rugar
“Our notion of nature is now out of date. Humanity forms nature. This is the core premise of the Anthropocene thesis, announcing a paradigm shift in the natural sciences as well as providing new models for culture, politics, and everyday life. In a two-year project, HKW will explore the hypothesis’ manifold implications for the sciences and arts.
The “Anthropocene” is the new geological “age of mankind” as proposed by the Earth sciences. Popularized by Nobel Prize winner Paul J. Crutzen around the turn of the millenium, the term now stands for one of the most trailblazing scientific concepts of the present. The transdisciplinary Anthropocene Project explores this concept, using research and presentation methods from the arts and sciences. If the opposition between humanity and nature is now suspended, how do we change our perspectives and perception? Is it still possible to think in concepts like “artificial” and “natural?” What does it mean for our anthropocentric understanding and our future if nature is man-made? What impact does the notion of global changes has on political decision-making? Which image of humanity appears if nature is shaped by mankind?”
— Bernd M. Scherer and Katrin Klingan, introduction to The Anthropocene Project
Next week we will be in Berlin to participate in a four-day event at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt called The Anthropocene Project: An Opening. These days compose the initial set of programming that will extend into the next two years, in cooperation with the Max-Planck-Society, Deutsches Museum, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam. We’re incredibly honored to be presenting work at the Opening.
HKW is known for its support and celebration of international artists and thinkers, and we expect the our time in Berlin to be quite different from the typical conference experience. As explained on the website, “In a reflective effort to organize encounters within this newly claimed geological present, multiple formats have been developed for the opening event to facilitate presentation, discussion and reflection.” We will be participating in three events over the course of the four days: “Visual Perspectives,” including the screening of previously unseen footage from our recent field research in the American West this fall; the “Friction” roundtable; and an “Island” discussion. The array of formats, events, discussions, exhibitions, theme days and film projects will “use methods of arts and science to conduct a trans-disciplinary investigation into the basic questions of the age of mankind and attempt to create an understanding of the potential implications of the Anthropocene theory.”
Stay tuned to the sightings page on GeologicNow.com, where we plan to post images and updates from the conference. We’ll invite other attendees at the Opening to do so as well. If you happen to be in Berlin, the event is open to the public. You can learn more about programming and presenters and receive updates on upcoming events from the HKW website.
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Mayan Calendar display inside the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., image cc: NCReedplayer
As most people know, Friday, December 21st, 2012 marked the end of the remarkable Mayan Long Count calendar. This day had been anticipated by Mayan people for an incredible 1,872,000 days— approximately equal to 5125.36 years!
We have been working within a much shorter timespan (around 1000 days) since we launched the FOP project (its three-year birthday is January 1st, 2013). We’re happy to look forward to seeing whether today, one day AFTER what some had suggested would be the end of the world, will actually be the start of new era. So, we’re taking a moment to pause and imagine what might have prompted the Mayans to think so far into their future, so long ago. And, what might prompt those of us here now to ever look that far into the future of “our” times?
Contemporary humans have generated “material sightlines” that actually compel us to consider long-term futures. They make up many of the topics we so often address in this blog. The motivations to consider deep futures can appear less than admirable when they take the form of massive plastic gyres in the ocean, escalating levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or tons of nuclear waste waiting to be stored underground or inside of mountains for the next million years. Without these human-designed material circumstances threatening our species long-term existence, would we have reason to think for the long count? It seems the Mayan civilization, despite its relatively small-scale, felt itself to be deeply enmeshed in a larger geo-cosmological configuration. We’d like to think that contemporary humans are capable of doing that too.
December 22, 2013 marks an important opportunity. We’re still here! Which means we still have time to reassess what kind of present we’re in the midst of creating. We still have time to consider how humans might configure into life on planet Earth, and beyond, between now and 5,000 years from now— in 7138. How might we engage, newly, the question of long-term thinking and imagining? How might we take up this task continuously, to engage the geologic “now” as if unfolds? It’s an open question, but we do have a little bit longer (geologically) to see if we’re up to the task. Here’s to new beginnings—and to creatively navigating the geologic now.
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Tomorrow is the day! We’re unleashing our edited collection Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life and the domain GeologicNow.com tomorrow evening. All are invited to join us at Studio-X NYC (180 Varick street, Suite 1610) at 7 p.m. You’ll have the chance to meet contributors, watch video screenings, enjoy drinks and conversation + hear from both Eileen Joy, director of punctum books, and Ed Keller, a punctum books advisory board member.
The fun will only build from there. At 8:30 p.m. we’ll kick off a viral download and sharing party for the book’s open source PDF. We invite all present, both in person and virtually, to start downloading and social network sharing at that time. Our goal is to crash the servers! Just before 9:00, two free copies of the printed book will be raffled off to those gathered at Studio-X. Launch-goers who help to make The Geologic Now go viral will earn a free raffle ticket for the drawing. We invite you to share the link to our book’s page on punctum’s website for downloading the PDF (*please download direct from punctum rather than forwarding your own PDF in an email). During the launch, we also invite you to pre-order your copy of the printed book, shipping mid-December.
“Zuihitsu 6,” from Making the Geologic Now
We’re excited to share this collection for many reasons, several of which feel particularly significant and unique:
With Making the Geologic Now, the medium is the message, and the medium is a provocative hybridity of form and content.
The book will live on as a beautiful, thoughtfully designed book of full-color images (thank you designers Reg Beatty and Jamie Kruse). We hope it makes it onto everyone’s shelf and gift list.
The book will ALSO be available in two other distinct forms, both free. One is an amazing interactive website (thank you web-designer and -master Alli Crandell) with full access to web versions of all articles in the book + a dynamic page for posting sightings of the “geologic now” in contemporary life, engaging in ongoing conversations about the book and related ideas, and following related trends/conversations on twitter. The other is the digital PDF of the printed book, designed to range free. This file is intended to circulate rapidly and wildly through culture, just as growing cultural sensibilities about “the geologic” are now propagating.
We are deeply grateful to be working with punctum books, a self-described “para-academic publisher.” They have taken note, ahead of much of the publishing industry, that a flexibility of formats for sharing ideas— and making these ideas accessible— is most urgent, while continuing to value careful thought and creative print design. The content, the result of an open call and ushered into reality by volunteers, is a testament to how hybrid forms are particularly well suited to addressing complex, cross-disciplinary challenges posed by present conditions of life on Planet Earth.
“Zuihitsu 4,” from Making the Geologic Now
More than 40 contributors are included in Making the Geologic Now, and the approaches and styles of their contributions are extremely varied. Contributors include practicing artists, designers, architects, historians, theorists, philosophers, educators, bloggers, journalists, poets, and engineers. Many of the contributors wear multiple hats and the hybrid practices they engage in to “make the geologic now” are striking and varied.
Throughout the collection, we have dispersed 15 visual and textual provocations (designed by smudge studio) that have affinities with the adjacent essays. We call these interjections “zuihitsu,” after a Japanese term that loosely translates as: “a miscellaneous essay,” “literary jotting,” or “musing.” A kanji that is out of common usage for “zui” translates as: “at the mercy of (the waves).” The kanji currently in modern usage in Japan translates as: “follow.” Hitsu means “writing or painting brush.” Our zuihitsu include original photography and excerpted texts from our own work, our contributors, and various public sources. They provide an unfinished “through line”-a lively and unsettled terrain composed of concepts, images, sensations and waves of realization that “make the geologic now.”
Making the Geologic Now offers evidence that the hybrid practices of publishing and knowledge-making that created it might be prescient. Given the current state of the Northeast region post-Sandy, we have a renewed sense of urgency about distributing the book broadly and through channels that are seldom tapped by “legacy” academic publishers. We hope that it can catalyze contexts in which contemporary material changes that have planetary consequences can be acknowledged, discussed and responded to in new and creative ways. As our cover image so directly claims, we are living at the edges of feasibility. This project is an attempt to make something at the edge of the unfolding geologic now.
We hope Making the Geologic Now can be experienced as an art book, pamphlet, broadside, textbook and more. We invite you to download the book, share the links and let us know what you think.
Sincere thanks to all contributors. We look forward to seeing you tomorrow night!
Contributors include: Matt Baker, Jarrod Beck, Stephen Becker, Brooke Belisle, Jane Bennett, David Benque, Canary Project (Susannah Sayler, Edward Morris), Center for Land Use Interpretation, Brian Davis, Seth Denizen, Anthony Easton, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Valeria Federighi, William L. Fox, David Gersten, Bill Gilbert, Oliver Goodhall, John Gordon, Ilana Halperin, Lisa Hirmer, Rob Holmes, Katie Holten, Jane Hutton, Julia Kagan, Wade Kavanaugh, Oliver Kellhammer, Elizabeth Kolbert, Janike Kampevold Larsen, Jamie Kruse, William Lamson, Tim Maly, Geoff Manaugh, Don McKay, Rachel McRae,Brett Milligan, Christian MilNeil, Laura Moriarity, Stephen Nguyen, Erika Osborne, Trevor Paglen, Anne Reeve, Chris Rose, Victoria Sambunaris, Paul Lloyd Sargent, Antonio Stoppani, Rachel Sussman, Shimpei Takeda, Chris Taylor, Ryan Thompson, Etienne Turpin, Nicola Twilley, Bryan M. Wilson.
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Save the date! We’re launching Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life (punctum books, 2012) three weeks from today. On December 4th, from 7-9 p.m at Studio-X NYC we will be celebrating the project and the work of our fantastic contributors. We hope you can join us! Studio-X NYC, a project of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, is located at 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610.
Making the Geologic Now announces shifts in cultural sensibilities and practices. It offers early sightings of an increasingly widespread turn toward the geologic as source of explanation, motivation, and inspiration for creative responses to material conditions of the present moment. In the spirit of a broadside, this edited collection circulates images and short essays from over 40 artists, designers, architects, scholars, and journalists who are extending our active awareness of inhabitation out to the cosmos and down to the Earth’s iron core. Their works are offered as test sites for what might become thinkable and possible if humans were to take up the geologic as our instructive co-designer—as a partner in designing thoughts, things, systems, and experiences. As a reading and viewing event, Making the Geologic Now is designed to move with its audiences while delivering signals from unfolding edges of the “geologic now.”
Making the Geologic Now will manifest across multiple formats. On December 4th, we will launch both the ebook (an open-source, free download from punctum) and the interactive, website version of the book. The beautifully designed, printed book will be available at the launch for pre-order directly from the Making the Geologic Now page on punctumbooks.com, shipping in mid-December.
We’ll launch the party with a brief introduction to the project. Then, we’ll invite contributors to comment on what they brought to the book, as we screen videos and display selected images from the project. Eileen Joy, director of punctum, will join us via Skype from Australia to share a bit about the spirit behind punctum books.
Drinks and snacks will fuel a downloading and social networking party as book contributors and supporters kick off the project’s viral future.
Given the current state of the Northeast region post-Sandy, we have a renewed sense of urgency about broadly distributing the book. We hope you will join us at the party, or online, and help us move this project through the world.
Additional details to follow, but for now, save the date!
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It has been a week of unprecedented images and happenings: rescue rafts on 14th street, people throughout the city without power for days, no subway out of Brooklyn, Chelsea galleries flooded, National Guard patrolling the streets near our studio in Red Hook, Red Hook residents with no heat or lights. The city that felt unshakable and infinitely resilient has been surprisingly slow regaining its footing. This delay has forced us all to acknowledge what we didn’t want to: the city that never sleeps has been diagnosed with an incurable, likely to reoccur case of vulnerability. This realization fundamentally changes what it feels like to be here. It includes a cathartic release into reality, but it also includes a sense of irrevocable loss. One week after Sandy’s arrival we are waking up to realize the city that we live in has changed and isn’t coming back the same. The city is no longer exempt from planetary realities of the contemporary moment. If we don’t take them seriously and start reassessing, human life will endure the material consequences of willful ignorance.
But, all of this was true last week, and many weeks before. For years, artists, architects, and designers have been preparing for this moment. If we let go of that old image of the hard, resilient city, and acknowledge our porous edges, what new city will emerge?
Eve Mosher, walking NYC’s High Water Line in 2008
Failures to address the risks of climate change. Willful ignoring of urgent needs for infrastructure renewal and innovation. Cowardly avoidance of “reality based” approaches to political deliberation and policy making.
How many Sandy-like superstorms will it take before these actions “begin to be seen as shameful, illegitimate, and intolerable by enough men and women to become doomed” (to quote an analysis of the unexpected timing and surprising sequence of events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall)? How many hybrid cyclone-delivered “fatal blow[s] from Mother Nature” will it take to “alter the course of human nature” (as Timothy Egan asks below).
Maybe just one. Because finally and suddenly—this week has unleashed a flurry of utterings and publicly admitted realizations (like those listed below). Might this break in consciousness open the floodgates? If taken into public imagination and will, simply stated matters of fact and deeply felt post-Sandy realizations could bring on new partnerships between humans and geologic forces and events—and whole new practices of human habitation and public works that are responsive to earth forces.
We sense this is a provocative and valuable moment to learn from. It’s worth pausing and taking note of the wide range of statements that, collectively, could spring the city into unprecedented new directions. We’ve sampled just a few from The New York Times over the past week, they include:
“A catastrophic storm has no feelings, no fury, no compassion and certainly no political position. Hurricanes may sound like bridge partners at the Boca community center — Sandy, Irene and Katrina — until they land and become monsters. The mistake, perhaps, is trying to anthropomorphize them. But that doesn’t mean that a fatal blow from Mother Nature will not alter the course of human nature. When the seas rose earlier this week, swamping the world’s greatest city and battering a helpless state, the turbulence of the elements washed away the sand castles of politics.” -Timothy Egan
“We were expecting tides at 10 to 12 feet,” Mr. Miksad [senior vice president for electric operations at ConEd], said. “Not only did we exceed those tides, we went up to 14-foot levels, which no one expected” -Michael Schwirtz
“In 108 years, our employees have never faced a challenge like the one that confronts us now,” Mr. Lhota, the transit authority chairman, said. -City Room Blog
In a news briefing on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said elected officials had a responsibility to consider new ways to prevent similar damage to the region’s infrastructure in the face of future storms. “For us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation and it’s not going to happen again, I think, would be shortsighted,” he said. “I think we need to anticipate more of these extreme-weather-type situations in the future, and we have to take that into consideration in reforming, modifying, our infrastructure.” – Michelle Higgins
“Some brokers and developers are anticipating new questions and concerns from buyers regarding waterfront property. “I think people will start looking into the zones a building is in, learning if there is backup power or not in the building, is there a history of flooding etc.,” said David J. Maundrell III, the founder of aptsandlofts.com, a New York brokerage that specializes in new-development marketing. Although he doesn’t expect those concerns to hurt prices, he said, “people will be more cautious and ask more and different questions.” - Michelle Higgins
“Group Recruiting Architects and Engineers to Assess Damage: The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, has reached out to its members to recruit registered architects and professional engineers to help in the daunting challenge of evaluating damage to 35,000 buildings affected by the storm. The chapter is looking both for those who are already certified in damage assessment and for those interested in receiving necessary training through the city Department of Buildings. They are asked to contact the chapter, with their A.I.A. member number, at email@example.com. (The e-mail address stands for “design for risk and reconstruction.”) -David W. Dunlap
“Emergency personnel used inflatable boats on 14th Street in Manhattan on Monday night.” -City Room Blog
Headline: Cuomo Raises Possibility of Building Levee in Harbor “It is something we’re going to have to start thinking about,” Mr. Cuomo said. “the construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level. The flooding in downtown Manhattan was really extraordinary and unlike anything I had seen.” -City Room Blog
Climate change, absent from this year’s presidential contest, has come front and center during this briefing on Hurricane Sandy recovery. Senator Schumer is criticizing politicians who do not discuss the issue of global warming. “I don’t think the federal government has done enough,” he said. “I think there are a group of people in Washington who have denied the truth. I think there is a relationship between these once-in-a-lifetime storms we experience every couple of years and what’s going on in the atmosphere.”
“Climate change is a reality…given the frequency of these extreme weather situations we have had— and I believe it is an increased frequency — for us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation, and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be short-sighted.” -Editorial
Sandy induced damage at 3525 Broadway, image Dave Bledsoe
Ephemerality/Precarity of Infrastructure and Culture
“I had a great final 60 minutes in Chelsea last Saturday and, consequently, one of the last looks at what would suddenly become, on Tuesday, the old, pre-Sandy Chelsea gallery scene. That day, as I started hearing reports of flooding in the neighborhood, some of the art I had seen on Saturday became increasingly vivid in my mind, as did the weird thought that I might be one of the last people who would ever see it.” -Roberta Smith
“What was once without precedent will now happen for the second time in 14 months: New York City’s transit system is going dark.” – Matt Flegenheimer
“As Consolidated Edison restored power to several parts of all five boroughs of New York on Friday, residents of Manhattan neighborhoods that emerged from the dark suddenly learned the names of the various networks beneath the city streets they usually take for granted.” -Robert Mackey
“In Battery Park before dawn, a darkness unseen since the New York City blackout of 2003 painted every high-rise building the color of a deep bruise.” - City Room Blog
“The chill and gloom in the air of our SoHo loft had made little difference to my daughter (“Daddy, when will I have Facebook?!”), although now, after two days, the desperation in her voice was slowly changing to resignation. This has been the longest period in her teenage life without an Internet connection. I shrugged my shoulders in the candlelight. I myself was as cut off as she was and had no way of knowing.” -Allen Hirsch
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“I was at the riverfront that night, and the Hudson River was intent on meeting the East River.” —New York Governor Cuomo, at a post-Sandy press briefing on October 31st, 2012
This Friday we’re scheduled to present at the “Emotional Elements” workshop at Johns Hopkins University, hosted by the Zanvyl Krieger School of Art and Sciences’ Program for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. The workshop seeks to explore the “emotionality” of things.
From here, it appears unlikely that we’ll be able to attend in person unless New York City subway and Amtrak service are restored. Planning for this event has been in the works since last summer, and we were invited to present our Amulets for Infrastructure project. That project has become eerily more prescient in the aftermath of this week’s hybrid storm, Sandy.
In the context of our work as Friends of the Pleistocene, events such as Sandy further confirm dawning realizations about the potency of geo/meteorological forces when they “assemble with” human beings, dense urban infrastructures, geomorphologies, and regional flows of living and nonliving things. We are heartened by some of the conversations now being initiated as a result of Sandy’s effect, despite that fact that they seem long overdue.
For the “Emotional Elements” project, we will offer the Amulets for Infrastructure as an attempt to acknowledge the in-difference that both human-designed infrastructures and geo/meteorological events “feel” towards humans—while also acknowledging the capacity of non-human things and events to create difference. This is especially the case when geologic events assemble and re-assemble with infrastructure independently of human desires, with consequences that reshape human lives in profound and irrevocable ways.
As we anticipated Sandy’s arrival and passage through of New York City, we took visual notes (via screenshots on our iPhones) of how the New York Times recorded and transmitted just how “beyond precedent” Sandy was becoming. The storm exceeded all expectation and continues to reconfigure energy-generation, communication, flows of movement and exchange. Today, daily life is far from normal for millions.
Given our focus on junctures of the human and the geologic, we are considering how scenarios such as major storm events challenge the maintenance of what contemporary humans desire of our infrastructures: stability, continuity, reliability, ease. And do so despite our best attempts to generate reality-based preparations and responses. It seems safe to expect that what we build and rely upon are likely to “fall short” if events, as predicted, become larger and more frequent.
Sandy has offered a stark reminder that how and where humans stage what we design, how humans and infrastructures are situated—and inevitably interact —exist not only in relation to one another and the landscape, but also in relation to the multitude of earth forces that are capable of rising up and challenging our best design and engineering capacities.
Some questions we hope to bring with us to the “Emotional Elements” workshop include: what might we learn directly from Sandy, as a vibrant assemblage of human and non-human forces, potentials, “luck,” and change? When we think and communicate about the storm, and when we respond and learn from it in ways beyond those dictated by habit, cliché, and standard procedures, what becomes possible? What new trajectories of thought and action become real-ized? What new challenges are laid bare? What does the force of this storm (its wind, surge, scales, intensities, unanticipated particulars) teach us about the contemporary moment and our possible futures? What should be reconfigured in response? And what amulet for infrastructure might we humans now make, in Sandy’s wake?
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Sandy is 1000 miles wide. A state of emergency has been declared in twelve States. 7000 flights have been cancelled. It’s a “100-year storm.” All 60 million of us affected by hybrid storm Sandy are living together at edges of feasibility. We take this occasion to revisit a project we did in 2007, the Feasibility Project. We invite you to download and creatively appropriate any or all of the 50, and to invent your own.
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Hurricane Sandy on Saturday, October 27th, 2012 image NOAA
As Sandy makes its way up the coast we will be following the storm closely. In advance of its arrival we find it interesting that Sandy is being called a hybrid storm (combining a hurricane, a cyclone, a tropical storm, a winter storm) with “no precedent.” This underscores for us the real world opportunities to test out some of the ideas we so often write about on this site and attempt to engage through our ongoing projects: landscapes are continuous events; the contemporary moment is a time of intensifying change; we are learning while in-the-midst, especially when events are unprecedented; we are required to be responsive to unfolding circumstances that are unknowable from here; the configuration of things is powerful and requires us to act in-relation; we need new ways to see and make sense of contemporary earth forces as they meet human activities and infrastructures—and this is a job that requires the utmost creativity. And that makes it a job that artists can assist.
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This past week we had the pleasure of setting sail on Portland, Maine’s Casco Bay Mailboat with a brave and inventive group of Art and Art Education students from the University of Southern Maine. For three hours we addressed the world as a streaming event—as a continuous unfolding of things and people in the midst of changing, affecting one another, and becoming something different. We used the Mailboat as a means for locating ourselves physically in the midst of dynamic forces (natural, social, economic, temporal). This was our provocation to students as facilitators of a workshop we had designed as visiting artists for the week.
Another primary task for the workshop/journey: to create material and develop ideas for a collaborative exhibition at AERA Gallery.
The design of our workshop and exhibition were prompted by the Japanese term “zuihitsu,” which we first wrote about last April, while in Japan. Zuihitsu refers to non-linear modes of drawing and writing, sometimes described as “letting the brush lead.” The root of the word includes the outdated Chinese character 隨 (Zui) meaning “at the mercy (of the waves).” While on the boat, we invited students “to develop ways to both sense and ‘signal’ or creatively respond to ‘the mercy of the waves’—the swerves in perspective, perception, understanding, sensation, attraction, imagination—that take place when we are en route.”
Our fearless co-travelers are now generating work to add to the exhibition at Portland’s AREA gallery, opening October 24th. Their work will be on display alongside ours in Zuihitsu: Look Only at the Waves until December 9th, 2012 (the show also includes past smudge projects such as the Feasibility Project (2008), Below the Line (2010), Geologic City (2011) and Repository (2012). We are incredibly excited to see the results of the students’ responses to their field experience.
Our week at USM was an inspiring blur of class visits and presentations, but some of our most vivid moments occurred during the three hours spent on the Mailboat (and during the anomalous 4.0 earthquake that occurred 20 miles from Portland on October 16th). Our tour-responsive contribution to the exhibition takes the form of two large wall drawings of the Casco Bay. One is populated by polaroid photography, and the other is augmented/re-interpreted by the participating students. Selected images from the installation are included below, with sincere thanks again to our hosts, the USM Department of Art and Galleries, and to the students and faculty of USM for their unparalleled interest and energy.
from the Feasibility Project
Geologic City (2011)
For more information visit the USM gallery page.
*all images this page FOP 2012
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Shimpei Takeda is a Brooklyn-based artist born in Fukushima prefecture, Japan. His ongoing project, “Trace – cameraless records of radioactive contamination” is featured in smudge studio’s forthcoming edited collection of visual essays, Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life. For Trace, Takeda, exposes soil contaminated by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to photo-sensitive materials for extended periods of time to create profound visualizations of the radiation existing within the material of affected landscapes. The imprints of light generated by radioactivity on photographic paper take on the appearance of stars and constellations in the night sky. Takeda describes Trace as a, “physically direct record of the worst man-made nuclear accident in history.”
In early September, we had the pleasure of hosting Shimpei at our studio to discuss his project. He had just returned from Fukushima, where he exhibited Trace in the 5th Contemporary Art Biennale of Fukushima and began work on a large-scale mural version of the project to be exhibited in 2013/14. Shimpei’s first iteration of Trace was funded as a Kickstarter project in 2011.
* All the photos this page © Shimpei Takeda, unless otherwise noted.
FOP: Can you say what your primary motivation was for making Trace?
SHIMPEI TAKEDA: At first, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening exactly in Fukushima. Or perhaps I didn’t want to believe what was going on. I had been reading a lot and teaching myself about what was going on—and about the nuclear industry—and the effects of radiation exposure. I was also learning more about the politics behind the nuclear industry. I started to feel that I had to do something in response.
At the same time, I wanted to visualize the invisible disaster in some way. Seeing data visualizations of radiation in the air, soil and ocean didn’t feel real. I needed to see a physically solid record of the disaster. Then I started to realize that radiation, such as gamma rays and visible light, basically work same way on photographic materials. On the surface of light-sensitive materials silver halide darkens when exposed to electromagnetic radiation.
Also, there is the fact that I was born in Fukushima prefecture. Doing such an art project while having a strong connection to the place, I believe, automatically makes a political message— even without saying too much. At the end of May 2011 I decided this was what I was going to do.
Then, endless research and experimentation began. As pre-experimentation before physically going to Japan, I started to expose photographic papers to radioactive materials that I could buy online. Also, I researched historical sites in the Kanto and Tōhoku regions for collecting soil. That was how I spent last summer. I can’t believe that am still working on this project…
Pre-experimentation #2: Crushed Radioactive Red Fiestaware (U-235 & U-238). September, 2011. For more information on the experimentation stage of Trace, see Shimpei’s website.
FOP: Yes, you are still doing it. In many ways, the events are not over.
ST: Yes, it is still leaking every day…
FOP: Was that usual for you, to take on a project for that long of a span of a time? When you say you can’t believe you are still doing it, is it because you usually do shorter projects?
ST: Often I work on a project for a long time, but slowly. On this project, since Day 1, I sort of knew that this was going to be a long project. Since I started working on this I haven’t really stopped. That makes me feel like it has been a long journey so far.
FOP: It is very challenging subject matter.
ST: It is not a fun project, but seeing the results for the first time in the darkroom… that was, yes, some kind of unspeakable experience.
FOP: Seeing the image take form on film must have been some kind of undeniable proof—given all the uncertainties of the events. Seeing it in front of you does make the material reality indisputable. You have said it is important to you that the project not be simply understood as a photography project. Why?
ST: Certainly it goes beyond a photography project. It is more of a scientific documentation of the disaster, which is still ongoing. Using radioactive particles in the soil, exposing them to photo paper or film, that process is more like a science experiment. Actually, the process, exposing photographic film to radioactive materials is called autoradiography—a scientific term. At the same time, there is a little room for artistic decisions that I can make. Such as the choice of soil as the material I use, the length of the film’s exposure, or places that I collect the soil. But I have tried to not over control the project and let it become more of a representation of how things are on their own.
My background of working with photography was easy to transfer to Trace. I have been focusing on a series of conceptual photographs with abstract aesthetics over the years. So initially this project started as one of those in my mind. But now I have started to see photographic materials as a receptor for radiation rather than visible light.
Takeda in his Brooklyn studio working on his photogram series Salt Terrain, April 2011. Photo by Michiya Hirata
FOP: You say on your website that the resulting images from Trace will, “perhaps be a valuable asset and documentation for future generations.” Can you say more about how this project is intended to serve future audiences, through time, and carry a message forward? Or do you think of it more as being a project that helps people who are alive today think more about the potency of nuclear materials?
ST: Trace is both for people who are living right now and for future generations. Radiation is not visible at all. People alive right now need better ways to see these materials, and need to see more than the broken nuclear reactors and people wearing masks. Also, geiger counter numbers are so abstract.
So, in some way, Trace is a direct physical documentation that helps us to understand—helps me to understand these numbers. I think doing this as a conceptual art piece serves as a better way to show people who come after us. As an artwork, I think it has a better chance of showing future generations than other formats.
Seeing Chernobyl and the health effects, this is very difficult to look at. After the Fukushima disaster, seeing things that happened in Chernobyl as a near future reference of Fukushima is totally shivering.
FOP: It is hard to make work about things that you yourself aren’t even sure you understand. But it does seem important to try. For us, it has been an ongoing negotiation of how to make such projects shareable and interesting to others. It has become necessary to keep finding new angles, while continuing to draw on past experiences, to even keep things interesting to us.
Alison McFarlane is a geologist who was just confirmed as the new Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner in the United States. This is a big change. It is the first time a geologist has been granted such a position. For us, her appointment exemplifies, and solidifies, the relationship between radioactive materials and the geologic (very long-term) design challenges they pose. As a result of Fukushima, do you think people in Japan have new understandings of time or are returning to old conceptions of time?
ST: I think that those who are actively trying to understand and are aware of what is going on, yes, they realize the enormous time frame. But for those who are ignoring the nuclear crisis and the aftermath, they can only see a short span of time. I don’t know how many people can think about the enormous time frames involved. They are so vast. Nuclear waste may need to be taken care of for 100,000 years. It may be hard to think about 1000 years ahead or even 100 years, but at least you can care for the next few decades, to try and make the world a better place or at least try to keep it the same way for the next generation.
After I collected the soil at the hospital where I was born, I thought, “Ah, I am not going to forget this day… and even after I die this mess will still be around.” I started to feel really bad. The next generation, and the next, will have to put up with the mess that we created. It is very irresponsible. Once you realize these things, it is hard to go back. Once you begin to think about it, it is hard to think about other things.
It is very hard to speak for all Japanese people, especially because people around me are heavily aware and active in this issue. But I feel there is a majority that includes a social atmosphere of just living along with what has happened and thinking there is nothing that can be done. Certainly, things are changing, but I get overwhelmed by this overall feeling of just accepting.
There is an example from my experience last summer. In Fukushima Prefecture, and perhaps nearby prefectures, television and radio now report radiation levels along with the weather forecast. I had heard about this, but listening or watching it in real life was a very creepy experience. The radiation report is brief, they say something quickly like, “Here is the report of today’s radiation level. The unit is microSv per hour. In Minami-Soma city, the lowest is 0.09 and the highest is 4.89 ….” It is just crazy like that (reference link).
Also, there is this commercial all over Japan (at least in the Tokyo metropolitan area) right now featuring a new smart phone that has a built-in radiation detector. There is a pop star on the commercial advertising it. I feel this suggests that we should prepare for a “worst event” by ourselves, because the government won’t tell us anything. Since March 2011, a lot more affordable radiation meters were available on the market, which I appreciate. But at the same time, it is disgusting to accept what has happened so nicely, instead of trying to change why it has happened—and why it continues to happen.
FOP: Yet, now that non-scientists have access to these tools, such as the new smart phone, they can also report radiation levels. When people do this, they become part of a network of citizens. “Legitimate” or “professional” media have to start listening and reporting on these topics when citizen efforts actually surpass the efforts of journalists and professionals.
ST: Yes, it works both ways.
FOP: Were you ever concerned for your health during the production of this project? If so, is this risk an important part of the project, and can you talk more about why it was important that you physically go to Fukushima and work with these potentially dangerous materials?
ST: I was definitely concerned about it. But practically speaking, when I retrieved the soil I was wearing a mask and gloves and avoided direct contact to minimize my exposure. I can minimize the effect by reducing the handling time, avoiding direct contact or inhalation by protecting myself with the right gear. I don’t feel great about this part of the project, but somebody has to do this dirty work.
Going to actual locations in Japan is the only way to get this work done. Raw soil is not transportable beyond national borders, so the processing, collecting and exposing of the soil to the photographic materials had to be done in Japan.
My first attempt was just exposing 8×10 inch sheet films. The amount of soil that I dealt with then was a very small amount. This summer I set-up to expose 60 sheets of 4×8 feet photographic paper for creating an installation. At some point earlier this year I figured that showing a 1:1 life-size reproduction of radiation exposure is important to present as documentation of the disaster. This commitment certainly made things much harder to figure it out, such as finding a place to work, and where to get the soil, etc.
This [photo below] is where I was staying in August. I set up a room and brought in about 60 bags of contaminated soil taken from Fukushima-city. Each bag is around 30–40 pounds. I built this very big box. Right now the photographic materials are there being exposed to the soil until late-October.
Keishu Wada, a friend of my grandfather, is housing the project. I used his space for working and lodging this summer. He has converted a 130-year old farmhouse into a soba noodle restaurant, theater and gallery. What used to be silk storage became a café and gallery space for his own work, which he still operates on the weekends. He is an artist and makes pictures accompanied by Tanka poetry (a bit longer poetry form than Haiku) related to what is happening as a result of Fukushima. He has made more than a hundred now and is working on publishing a book. This piece [photo below] is about abandoned animals in the evacuation zone.
Mr. Keishu Wada, an artist based in Fukushima-city. August, 2012
FOP: In your artist book you say scooping the dirt samples in Fukushima felt like scooping someone’s ashes. Japanese aesthetics and philosophies often explore human awareness of the forces of “inanimate things.” Do such ideas influence your work? How you would broadly describe Japanese relationships to materiality?
ST: Growing up in Japan automatically means I have a relationship to Shinto to some degree, so animism is always somewhere in my mind. I think a lot of Japanese people think about this. At the same time, a lot of friends in New York understand this and the whole idea of what I am saying. Certainly, you understand this and other non-Japanese people understand what I am saying. And that is something special about New York. I feel in New York, the border between East and West can disappear.
FOP: You were recently in Fukushima sharing your work. How was your work received? Were there any surprising reactions?
ST: People in Fukushima found this project meaningful to them. They have been very supportive. I was surprised by the people who told me it was a great project or thanked me for doing it. Of course, the fact that I have roots there helped.
FOP: Can you talk more about your collaborations, such as with supporters on Kickstarter who funded the first phase of the project? How important have collaborators been to your project and the way it continues to grow?
ST: Close friends, family, and people sharing the same views towards this issue understand my mission and generously help me in so many ways; technically, artistically, and emotionally.
The Kickstarter campaign certainly expanded that feeling. I never feel that I work alone, although on a daily basis, I spend most time by myself. Overall, this project is primarily just physical work with a lot of psychological stress. When the production is difficult, it is very helpful to know there are people out there. That cheers me up. There are some moments I ask, “Ah… why am I doing this?!” Sometimes it just gets overwhelming.
Last winter, going to the twelve locations I was very lucky to have friends come along. Especially Shingo Annen (Shing02) a hip-hop activist. He not only assisted me during the road trip, but also encouraged me mentally.
Shing02 has been actively dealing with nuclear issues in his music for several years. In 2006 he participated in the “Stop-Rokkasho” project to raise awareness about the dangers of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. He also has been working with a filmmaker, Hitomi Kamanaka, to create soundtracks for her documentary films about nuclear power and radiation exposure. He also published an independent report about the effects of radioactive substances in the biological system with his own info graphics (only in Japanese).
Since I am dealing with very painful subject matter, mentally strong colleagues’ participation and collaboration have been essential to keeping the project moving forward.
FOP: US media no longer cover the Fukushima accident regularly, yet there is still so much happening at the plant and in the surrounding areas. Do you have any recommendations for English speakers who want to follow the events?
ST: There is no one single source that is perfect, but people might want to visit enenews.com. This is an energy news site that might be useful.
FOP: We feel there is point of connection between our work and yours, because to us it seems that Trace attempts to invent new ways to talk about, and experience, a topic that typically polarizes people. We think your work helps people invent new ways of thinking—ways that meet the material reality of this moment, the right here and right now.
ST: I never thought I would end up doing this type of work. I never thought a nuclear disaster would happen in Japan. I grew up in the suburbs of Tokyo and I didn’t have much of a connection to the land. While growing up I would go to Fukushima every summer and also for New Years with my parents to visit my grandparents. We would go to the lakes and mountains to ski or to the hot springs. All those kinds of activities happened in Fukushima. So I recognize a lot of the names of cities and places in the region. When I was listening to an NPR interview of a victim living in temporary housing in Fukushima I noticed the dialect. It is the same as my grandparents. That kind of thing can really change you. I think if it had happened somewhere completely different, some other location, I’m not sure I would have done this project—if it wasn’t Fukushima.
* Limited edition silver gelatin prints and books of Trace are available for purchase at www.shika-inc.com. Proceeds directly support the production of mural-sized version of Trace currently in production.