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still from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011
Two boys. Each spinning a film reel through the streets of Kabul. One reel red, the other blue. Constant rolling.
A thirty-something woman on stage. Inside a Brooklyn warehouse. She’s just returned from a three-week boat trip to the Arctic and she wants to sing a song to you about what she saw, what she learned, what’s coming. And about what is never coming back.
As the speed and scale of change on our planet continue to increase, artists continue to dislocate themselves and site their work where change can be seen more clearly. They seem compelled to act as harbingers. Perhaps they are sensing a narrowing window of time when acts of creative making in response can be joyful, playful, or contemplative–before they must turn urgently reactive (or reactionary).
As recent headlines beamed news of a meteor exploding over Russia reportedly injuring hundreds, an asteroid on near collision course with the Earth, Beijing air quality running amok, and the arrival of the largest blizzard in a century, we visited several galleries and theaters in New York, where we steadied our senses and experienced some of the works that are addressing the “right now.” Two standout highlights: Francis Alÿs’ Reel – Unreel at David Zwirner and Cynthia Hopkins’ This Clement World at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
still from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011
From the second row of This Clement World, we were drawn in to Hopkins’ depth of commitment to the complex issue of climate change. Her multi-media approach employed edited footage (both film and digital video), folk singing, a back-up band + vocals, drag and science. All of this was created in response to a three-week, 2010 expedition to the Arctic, as a part of the Cape Farewell project. It’s obvious she took the journey seriously as an opportunity to challenge her established approaches to her autobiographically-inflected work. She succeeded. In just over 70 minutes, Hopkins translated her personal experiences into something an audience of strangers could enjoy as creative process.
Twenty-one other artists, scientists and activists (plus the voyage’s Captain Ted) accompanied Hopkins on the 100-year-old schooner named the Noorderlicht. The performance included curated transcripts of interviews Hopkins conducted with her travel companions to illustrate reasons they also felt compelled to visit this melting landscape.
At times, the production accounted details of Hopkins’ personal journey, told through asides (at one point she wonders out loud if our species’ addiction to fossil fuels might parallel her own previous addictions to drugs and alcohol). Yet, the tale she spins seeks relevance to everyone inhabiting Earth right now. It’s a rare New York theater experience to have climate science statistics become part of the performance, or to be told by a bright-eyed young woman that the “age of innocence” is over.
Hopkins also told her audience that it’s an opportunity to be alive today, within this window of “clemency” that is fast transforming. She’s right. We are lucky to be alive during this sweet, short (anomalous, actually) span of clement planetary weather (both geologic and meteorologic). She’s also right about the speed at which it’s changing.
Cynthia’s message was direct and focused. Imaginary characters from the past and future delivered warnings about planetary realities that many of us already know. Heavy doses of activism + art often run the risk of losing potential audiences before they have the chance to experience what challenges them most. When the message is so direct, we miss the chance to experience something we think is so familiar to us in new or surprising ways. Or, we risk feeling that what we already know is simply being confirmed, when, actually, it’s a different story or way of being with these realities that we most urgently need. As with many activist messages delivered to audiences who haven’t directly experienced the situation in question, it’s often hard to hold on to a sense of urgency, and once home, it’s easy to feel at a loss for what “to do” in the face of something so big and far away.
Just down the block from St. Ann’s, at Smack Mellon, Janet Biggs’ installation, Somewhere Beyond Nowhere, also presents a response to a boat trip to the Arctic in 2010. Seeing it in juxtaposition to This Clement World, we were struck by how Biggs’ Arctic felt unmarked by any sense of change registered at either personal or planetary levels.
Francis Alÿs’ Reel – Unreel, commissioned for dOCUMENTA (13), recently closed at David Zwirner gallery. But the video piece, which is the core of the endeavor, is free to watch on the artist’s website. Seen during the same week that we attended This Clement World, we experienced Reel–Unreel as leaving “the state of things” infinitely more unfinished than This Clement World, while at the same time sharing some of the sensibilities that were the heart of Hopkins’ performance.
Two boys. Two film reels. One reel red, the other blue. The streets of Kabul. Not far into the video we realize the reels are connected by a single strip of continuously moving film. One reel unwinds, the other winds. The ancient city looks incredibly resilient, yet crumbling. It’s ambiguous, like most everything in the film: is what we see falling apart, or is it, in fact, endlessly enduring? Is it war, material, or time that will abide here? No answers are offered.
Helicopters cut through distant, dusty skies. The film reels roll on. At times, crowds of children join in what has quickly become an enchanted and remarkably focused game of chase. Daily life in Kabul becomes the backdrop: donkeys, goats, vehicles, children, marketplaces, crowded streets. Adults cast quick glances towards the movement, but largely ignore the reels whirling past. Through bustling markets, across red carpets, down dirt roads, through traffic-jams, and past crumbling buildings, the serpentine filmstrip slithers, notably resilient. Though the reels falter, spin out of control, tip and bang down stone steps, over and over the game is picked up again. The two boys are bound in loose, but constant, relation throughout the “game” by the literal materiality of the strip of film that runs between them, and by frame of the film that we are watching. The soundtrack to the work is the hollow sound of metal bumping over pebbled dirt, often accompanied by rhythms of breathing, traffic, helicopters, voices, radio, animals.
still from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011
After what feels like an immense distance has been traversed by the boys and the reels, a small debris fire on the roadside burns the filmstrip in two. The red reel gains speed, then soars off of a nearby cliff. Game over. One of the boys re-spools what remains onto the blue reel.
In 2001, the Taliban created an enormous fire on the outskirts of Kabul by burning thousands of films from the Afghan Film Archive. The films were thought to be original negatives, but in fact, they were copies. It is said that the conflagration lasted fifteen days. With this bit of history folded into the video’s closing titles, the free movement of the filmstrip across Kabul, and the watching of Reel–Unreel itself, become all the more poignant
Paying attention to change, being there for the change, enacting new gestures of movement and perhaps meaning in response to it, and going to its edges: these are fast becoming potent practices for conveying senses of the change we are facing planet-wide. In Reel–Unreel, movement itself speaks in ways that cross and reconfigure polarized issues. It can also assist us in loosening our tight grips that attempt to “capture” the “Reality” of our situation.
Navigating the beautiful and highly charged landscapes of Kabul or the Arctic (and countless other places), contemporary artists find themselves located within shifting terrains of uncertainty. The realization that there is no “outside” perspective that allows a full picture or complete understanding results in works that can be endlessly challenging–and potentially more pleasurable. We already have been swept up into the movement that is massive planetary change. This movement is fast becoming the daily reality of life, and it is quickly becoming more and more like “home.” Inhabiting the movement, we become invested by losing bits of ourselves to the unfolding change, and what we cannot know of it. From within the movement, we realize that the activist question of “what do we do next or in response?” gives way under the fact that we are already doing, responding, and arriving at the next. Reel–Unreel gestures toward other ways to inhabit and make from within the movement, while on the way.
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Monday morning as we were leaving Berlin, the above image appeared on the cover of the newspaper displayed in the lobby at our hotel. The news had just broken that Beijing experienced the worst air quality recording on record the previous Saturday. The reading actually exceeded registered standards, peaking at 755 on the 500 point scale set by the EPA. Day had been rendered night as thick bands of air particulate filled the city. Some described the situation as “post-apocalyptic,” and that struck a cord, as we had just attended and participated in The Anthropocene Project: An Opening at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW).
The “festival” of events included lectures, research forums, conversations, screenings and performances—all addressing (creatively, analytically, experimentally) the state of humans in relation to the planet and in relation to ideas (and realities) of accelerating change, the end of “nature” and deep geologic futures. The words “post-apocalyptic” had been spoken several times among those gathered, but being reminded of the material realities unfolding in the “outside” world, on the streets of Beijing, lent a sense of immediacy to how we might take up the questions and challenges posed by what some are now calling the Anthropocene.
The four-day long event was a sustained attempt to explore what the scientific “news” of the Anthropocene might mean for assumptions, long-held ideas and ideas, and processes of the arts and humanities—especially within the frames and histories of Western thought. The impressive and eclectic list of participants defies any quick summarization. Luckily, audio recordings of selected keynote lectures and discussions are now posted on the HKW website. Several aspects of the event set it apart from other “conferences” we’ve attended. We were thrilled to listen to thoughtful and patient exchanges between natural scientists and social scientists, artists and literary critics. In a captivating conversation format, for example, geologist Jan Zalasiewicz described to historian/sociologist John Tresch, just how the process by which the Anthropocene might eventually be adopted into the official geologic timescale (the process will take years). Jan is the convener of the “Anthropocene Working Group” for the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London.
The event’s process of exchanging ideas put an emphasis on dramaturgy. Lectures were invited to become more like performances than typical academic paper deliveries. They were staged late into the evening and were organized through “islands” of thought and events under themes such as “Oikos,””Techné,” “Times” and “Garden.” In the lobby of HKW, a Metabolic Kitchen by raumlaborberlin offered attendees including, artists, scientists and cooks, “various situational arrangements in relation to the preparation and consumption of food,” with an emphasis on the metabolic transformation of “food” into bodies.
On Saturday night, Michael Taussig delivered a mesmerizing meditation/reading/performance on the impossibility of grasping the Copernican Revolution, called the Berlin Sun Theater. Other hybrid performance/conversation/lectures ranged from a focused Anthropocenic Research Forum to a Bauhaus inspired “Breath Breakfast.” On the last day of the event, during a roundtable discussion on storytelling, we had the chance to see a several-minute long clip from the Otolith Group’s important film The Radiant. Otolith made the film in response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. It screened last summer at dOCUMENTA(13). Since last October, we’ve been considering the implications of T.J. Demos review of dOCUMENTA(13), in which he emphasized the role of The Radiant within the larger art fair (see Brooklyn Rail). In particular, we were drawn to Demos observations:
“… the evacuated Japanese villages and untouchable plant life within the contamination zone serve as an experimental laboratory in which elderly volunteers expose themselves to what the Otolith Group calls “the necropolitics of radiation” served up by the global nuclear regime for scientific research, exemplified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. “The Radiant” thus exemplifies what Fredric Jameson calls “negative utopianism,” one that “transform[s] our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” And that future doesn’t look pretty. Rather than giving itself over to the sci-fi seductions of some future bio-technology, this work finds the future immanent in specific conditions of our present. The result is that the future projected by “The Radiant”works like a mechanism to make the present different than it appears, sparking a political energy to resist what is already occurring … questions lie at the heart of contemporary debates over what kind of world we want to live in, how it will be organized, and what role art might play in its creative imagination, representation, and realization. With each passing day, the stakes of those debates only continue to grow more momentous.”
We were surprised to leave Berlin feeling energized, perhaps even optimistic, after such an intensive engagement with so many pressing and unanswerable questions about the future of humans in and as the Anthropocene. Yes, there had been many poignant reminders of how little time there could be left for humans to address the “great acceleration” of material transformation now occurring on and to the Earth: on opening night, climate change scientist Will Steffen’s keynote, “Where on Earth Are we Going,” (listen to audio here) left little doubt that humans have precipitated this acceleration to some degree. And the question of how we will meet or counterbalance this acceleration continues on, unanswered and urgent, after the HKW event. But the optimism we left with stems from having participated in an event that took bold risks as it provoked new ways to stage and create knowledge. The very terms of long-held modes of academic and artistic engagement were thrown open. The HKW format challenged participants not to default into standard and comfortable delivery/presentations/discussions, and to instead share work in ways that go beyond disciplinary blind spots or intellectual jousting. The invitation was to provoke one another, probe our own assumptions, cross-pollinate, and reconsider our own methodologies and working practices. Typical roles of “artist” “scientist” and/or “academic” were displaced in the process. As smudge, we were surprised and humbled by being given the task, as artists, to deliver an “impulse statement” to a roundtable conversation entitled “Friction.” Participants of this roundtable included Dipesh Chakrabarty, Akeel Bilgrami, Paulo Tavares and Renée Green. In this lively assemblage of philosophers, artists, and cultural theorists, we used a speculative project as a shared point of departure, rather than as a statement of predetermined conclusions.
We left with a feeling that there was something gathering just beyond or outside the frames of reference shared and challenged at The Anthropocene Project: An Opening. It’s something that needs to be brought into thought, discussion, and practical action. It’s something like: those not yet fully thought or lived ideas and sensations that become possible when we start from the felt reality of being enmeshed in the Anthropocene’s qualitatively new state of material conditions and dynamics. And, it’s something like: those not yet fully imagined stories about “The Anthropocene” . . . those alter-narratives that affirm the Anthropocene is different from all narratives of nature and culture that Western sciences, philosophies and arts might attempt to lay over it—while unsettling every definition of nature, culture, and difference arrived at (to paraphrase Trinh T. Minh-Ha). We sense that HKW’s “Opening” has brought the inappropriate, inappropriated planetary state-shift that is the Anthropocene, closer to awareness for us, and perhaps for others who participated.
The HKW Anthropocene Project runs through 2014. Jan Zalasiewicz reminded everyone on the final day that what is being called “the Anthropocene” is less a geologic marking of an “Age of Man” and more a materially inscribed threshold of radical geological change—shaped and accelerated by human activity. “The Anthropocene” calls attention to the rate and extent of material change that is presently unfolding on planet earth. This event of accelerated change in the material conditions of the planet, and its consequences, is what will determine “the next” of human life on earth. The question of how we humans will meet its consequences received a particularly provocative and energizing calling-out at HKW last week.
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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.