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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.
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outside the Shiprock uranium disposal cell, Shiprock, NM, all images this post FOP 2012
outside the Mexican Hat uranium tailing disposal cell
The last ten days have been all-consuming—two thousand miles covered by car in UT, NM, and CO. As we attempt to extract ourselves from the total immersion and movement that has been our process and project, we are left, at least for the moment, with very few words and many many images and sensations. Through the blur of highways, hotels, appointments, and dips and climbs in altitude, we are certain that the reality of what we’ve captured on various cameras can’t be communicated through still images alone. This is a tale of movement, change—and dynamic configurations.
During our journey we did indeed pass several trucks transporting radioactive waste to WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), our nation’s only deep geologic repository for the storage of transuranic nuclear debris. Traveling the same routes that the waste travels was the primary intention of our trip. But, still, we were surprised and startled by these encounters. Our routine of waiting at strategic points along the road in hopes of documenting a passing truck failed. Instead, what we did find was that after long hours of driving, as our focus started to drift, a truck would appear on the horizon. Each of the four we spotted carried a different form of packaging container, allowing us to grow our visual typology of transportation forms.
WIPP, located in the desert outside Carlsbad, is the nation’s most “terminal” site for nuclear waste. Here, materials will be sequestered for upwards of 10,000 years. Seeing waste move alongside our car on highways and interstates, especially as we neared WIPP, got us thinking: the moments we shared with it would be some of its last above ground for what very likely will be, eternity.
We were humbled by our encounters with staff and employees of the facilities and cultural institutions we visited. Their openness and professionalism towards two curious artists were remarkable. At TRANSCOM, we visited a room where nationwide shipments of waste are tracked to WIPP. Here, employees “look only at the movement” of nuclear waste on a minute by minute basis as it flows throughout our country. This visit made vividly clear how consequential this work is—and how it is taken up by real people every day, all day.
As we begin to work through the film, video and photography we have accumulated, we offer a few still images that signal, peripherally and indirectly, some of the moving configurations of place, people, things, and potent materialities that we encountered and passed through.
In the coming months, our project will be to work with our footage in an attempt to invent new ways to engage and communicate how this material shapes and is shaped by today’s social, biological, environmental and political forces. We’re not interested in reiterating perspectives or arguments that draw on outdated politics, understandings or assumptions. Instead, we want to meet and image this material’s contemporary movements and autonomies as vibrant matter.
remote handled nuclear waste en route to WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) along New Mexico’s Highway 285
road to the Rocky Flats Site/Wildlife Refuge, Arvada, CO, signage for new housing development on the right
setting up the car-mounted camera outside the EnergySolutions office in downtown Salt Lake City
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a CNS10-160B shipping container spotted along I-80 in Utah (PDF fact sheet via the DOE), all images this post FOP 2012
Greetings from the midst of the movement and from the open eye of the road. Today, we left the hazy blue and blistering white brown landscape of northern Utah and arrived into the deep red canyon-filled southeast. In the past 48 hours, we passed a truck (pictured above) that we had never seen for ourselves, outside of the DOE image that appeared in our Repository deck; toured the interior of the Clive Facility; viewed a uranium disposal cell from a scenic highway rest stop overlook; and drove along the edge of a massive uranium pile just outside of Moab, UT, as we watched the geiger counter loaned to us by a friend tick upwards. It is far too early to discern what we will make of it all, or even to take in what we have seen, but we offer these images from our journey in-process.
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“Look only at the movements.” – Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual
image NASA, 1957, a physicist studies alpha rays in a continuous cloud chamber to, “obtain information aimed at minimizing undesirable effects of radiation on nuclear-powered aircraft components.”
In less than two weeks, we’ll be embarking on a research trip supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. That trip, which we’ve tentatively named Repository: Look Only at the Movement, both extends the work we released in June, (a 42-card deck that chronicles “temporary” and mobile infrastructures in the United States designed to contain nuclear waste until more enduring facilities can be researched and constructed, titled Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure), and takes it in a new direction.
For the new project, we will drive some of the interstates and highways used for the transportation of nuclear waste in the United States with variety of media in hand, including Super 8 film, digital photography, film photography and a car-mounted high-definition time-lapse video camera. Instead of focusing on particular labs, storage sites, or mounds as we did for the Repository deck, we will research and creatively document the movements of nuclear waste and the materials that facilitate them.
One could say that during the journey, we’ll be addressing the portions of the American West that we traverse as a kind of cloud chamber. We will attempt to detect traces and trajectories of the particularly potent materiality of nuclear waste as it passes though and interacts with human-designed spaces of daily life. In the process, we will become actors in the mix of movements and events surrounding the traveling waste as we take up paths and locations along roadways where citizens and nuclear waste move through the West side-by-side. We will document passages and interactions from the perspective of the potent materials being transported, as they continue their ongoing quest for a final resting place capable of containing them into the deep future.
While in the field, we’ll be looking at the materiality of the spaces through which nuclear waste moves, and is moved: tire, pavement, guard rails, signage, canister, truck, gate, ground. We intend to respond to the movements and material objects and surfaces that enable various different transportation processes and infrastructures for low-level waste, uranium tailings, transuranic, and high-level waste.
Our exact route will be determined by what we encounter along the way, but potential destinations include: Clive, Utah’s low-level waste storage site; uranium tailing sites in New Mexico and Utah (Moab, Mexican Hat); Albuquerque, Los Alamos National Lab; the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, NM; and Rocky Flats, Colorado.
We plan to give special attention to the flows of nuclear materials to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP is the only deep geologic repository that is open and receiving transuranic waste for “permanent” disposal in the United States. As a “terminal” site for waste, it aims to sequester waste for upwards of 10,000 years.
The photography and video that result from our ten days of “moving-with” America’s mobile nuclear infrastructure will be the basis for an exhibition that will be relayed between several venues (in 2013-15) near sites that hold historical and contemporary significance because of their relationship to the movements of nuclear waste. As the exhibition is relayed from venue to venue, it will reenact the route of our research trip, trace the spatial scope and topographies documented in the work itself, and traverse paths that nuclear waste materials will continue to travel for the foreseeable future.
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September kicks off a new art going season in New York City and FOP/smudge studio will be participating in two upcoming (free and open to the public!) events this month. This coming weekend our studio doors will be open as part of Go Brooklyn, the borough-wide “community-curated open studio project” facilitated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. During the weekend community members registered as voters will visit studios and nominate artists for inclusion in a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. We’ll be in our Red Hook studio (#29) at 183 Lorraine both Saturday and Sunday, September 8-9th. Our floor will be open from 11-7 p.m. with more than 79 artists participating, including painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, jewelers, wood workers, ceramicists and a ukulele maker. On Saturday night there will be a barbecue with a DJ until 10pm. We hope to see you there!
And, later this month, our Repository cards and recent Geologic City: A field guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York will both be available at the New York Art Book Fair (September 28-30th at PS1) at the Soberscove Press booth. Sincere thanks to Julia Klein for hosting us. Not for the faint of heart, the Book Fair offers a remarkable and dense jungle of latest titles that are not only about art, but are art themselves—expanding both the boundaries of what “books” are and what “art” can be.
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“Do you understand? Everything we see is impermanent. Whole cities can vanish in a day of warfare. It’s this idea that the Japanese believe in, not the outward form … But what’s important here is that we conceive of our tradition and philosophy as invisible, which is very different from Europeans.” —Kisho Kurokawa, Project Japan (p. 385)
“… the idea of keeping architecture permanently is hypocritical, whereas considering architecture as temporary is authentic. Perhaps our desire of imprinting the ground with something imperishable is a manifestation of gross civilization.” —Munesuke Mita, Project Japan (p.656)
“People think of Metabolist architecture growing and changing, but it has to grow and change perfectly. It has to be beautiful … perfect as a constantly changing process. Impermanent beauty, immaterial beauty. So we found a new theory. European beauty was supposed to be eternal, but perhaps we could discover a new aesthetic based on movement. We thought we could make moving architecture.”—Kisho Kurokawa, Project Japan (p.383)
In our spare time this summer we’ve been reading Rem Koolhas and Hans Ulrich Olbrist’s spectacular Project Japan. Metabolism Talks…. The book includes nine interviews with Japanese architects and designers who were in some way related to the Metabolist movement in Japan. The book traces the movement across geographies, cultural and economic upheavals, bubbles, busts, and re-births. It’s a graphic treasure trove of ephemera, architectural plans, and highlighted quotes that disclose vital asides and insights into the characters that gave form to the “group.” By the time we finished the tome, we understood that Metabolism was more a nascent, yet powerful concept than it was an established collective. Various personalities seemed to revolve around Metabolist ideas and projects like satellites. They were always in relation to one another, while also simultaneously pursing quite different and individual projects, ambitions, connections, directions, and styles. The concept of Metabolism seems to have worked best as leverage for gaining notice for a group Japanese architects who were otherwise overlooked by the West. But the movement itself didn’t gel into a solid, orchestrated, or defined effort—and perhaps that is the most potent and visionary asset that it offers to architectural history.
“The Metabolists” were wildly different from one another. But they each embraced change, movement and ephemerality. Kisho Kurokawa was said to have once proposed a building that would contain dynamite inside to ensure its “extinction” after 30 years. Industrial designer Kenji Ekuan stood in the wreckage of Hiroshima and said, “there, in a world where there was nothing left at all, I felt the call of all things man-made.” So much so, that he left his inherited right to become a monk at the family temple to convey the teachings of Buddha “through the world of things.” Echoing Ekuan, Kurokawa, who also witnessed the aftermath of World War II, said: “I grew up in the center of Nagoya, but during the war we fled to the suburbs. One night, two or three hundred bombers flew over the city and nothing remained. Nagoya’s population of 1.5 million and its 230-year history disappeared overnight. I was shocked. Standing amidst the rubble, my father said, “Now we must build the city from scratch.” I thought, we can build a city? Unbelievable! At the time, I didn’t believe in architecture—I though architecture and cities would just disappear.“
Embedded within the story of the Metabolist movement are insights about Japanese designers’ and architects’ relationships to materiality. And these relationships have become most interesting to us. The volume reveals a relationship to materiality that appears to be intrinsic, and particular, to Japanese culture. It is a sensibility that seems to have escaped being overtly codified as philosophy, and instead, has been internalized—and aestheticized—into ways of being, cultural traditions, langauge and daily life practices.
Take for example, comments by Hidetoshi Kato found in the margin of Kenji Ekuan’s interview, under a caption entitled “spirit:” “I believe in the lives of many things—not only living animals, flowers and so forth, but also a small cup, your camera, your watch, your shoes… everything has its own life. It was born somewhere, and it will be worn out and reborn. In Kyoto you find a very interesting tomb called fudezuka. It’s a tombstone for old pens. Once you use your pens, you cannot put them in the garbage, you have to preform a ritual.”
fudezuka mound in Kyoto, image toranosuke
Many of the Metabolist architects also mention, sometimes with great significance, the Ise shrine. The Grand Shrine at Ise has been (re)built exactly to plan, the same plan, every 20 years since 690 CE—with new materials. Noboru Kawazoe eloquently describes Ise’s philosophical influence, “The Japanese thought that life becomes eternal by being absorbed into the great stream of Nature. For them, it was not a case of ‘life is short, art eternal.’ They only had to look at the Ise Shrine—ever new, yet ever unchanging—to know that it is art, in truth, that is short and life that is eternal … It comes from an awareness that, just as Ise Shrine was reborn from parent to child, then from child to grandchild in a continuous line, so did our ancestors live from one generation to the next and to the next, and now we stand at the end of that continuous line …”
Here in New York, and in the present tense, we toured the recently opened September 11 memorial in lower Manhattan. Perhaps one of the most profound contributions to this highly contested tract of land is 4 World Trade Center, designed by Metabolist Fumihiko Maki’s Maki and Associates. The structure, which will be 72 stories tall, is practically invisible at certain times of day. Designing a structure capable of essentially disappearing, while existing within one of the most emotionally charged zones in America, is a remarkable architectural feat. An insightful article about the building appeared last June in the New York Times under the title, “A 977-Foot Tower You May Not See, Assuming You’ve Even Heard of It.” Osamu Sassa, the project architect for the Maki firm, was quoted in the piece as saying: “We like the idea of the building dematerializing.”
The events of March 2011 ushered in entirely new tumultuous, material upheavals to Japanese life. The tsunami and earthquake erased entire cities and villages. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster continues to require unprecedented vigilance for the clean-up and ongoing attempts to contain radioactive materials.
The themes that accumulate at the core of Project Japan left us thinking that contemporary Japanese people might be some of the best prepared for navigating—and enacting— profoundly new materialist directions in the immediate future. Having escaped extended colonization and, over the past several millennia, having been able to refine the ability to maneuver deftly beyond the tragic losses of war, typhoons, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis, there is little Japanese people haven’t already overcome, materially, in their daily lives. Adaptation and appropriation have become central attributes of Japanese cultural identity—along with a deeply embedded respect for and awareness of ephemerality.
The Postcript of Project Japan, by Toyo Ito, was especially inspiring. His words echo our sense that there is much to learn from Japanese designers and architects as they become some of the first to reorient themselves (once again) towards an unknowable and constantly changing future that we all face:
“The reported scene of a fishing village in Sanriku devoured in seconds by the tsunami struck me and made me wonder what Japan’s 60 years of modernization since the war was all about. I am amazed by the fragile state of things despite all the economic and technological “strength” Japan has been so proud of… Was our achievement of the past several decades a house of cards? The media often uses the phrase “beyond assumption” for the disaster, meaning that its force was beyond architectural requirements. But I can’t help sensing a more fundamental disruption between our norm and the reality. I think we design things in a mechanical manner…we do not engage with the natural environment as something constantly affected by the varying forces of the ground, sea, or wind. I think our task now is to rethink how we “assume” design conditions, rather than reviewing the conditions. We need to start by questioning the way we relate to nature… Any proposal for tackling this issue, however visionary, should be an encouragement for the towns and villages reconstructing with the possibility of natural disaster always looming. And we architects should find it an invaluable opportunity to work on such a proposal, where we can question the norm of modernism that is so embedded within us. I think now is a good moment for us architects to break away from this mode and regain a viable relationship with nature.” —Toyo Ito (p.697)
Kenzaburo Tange, the man closest to the “core” of Metabolism, aptly asked decades ago, “What are the things that join us with the future?”
tsunami debris, image CC Yuichi Shiraishi
Oirase tsunami gate, image CC Richard Masoner
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Saturday night FOP had the pleasure of attending a public talk by Matt Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), at Studio-X. There, Matt announced CLUI’s latest project on New Jersey’s Meadowlands. Free copies of CLUI’s interpretive Meadowlands maps were distributed at the talk, and they can be downloaded free from the project webpage.
CLUI describes the Meadowlands as, “the closest open landscape to the architectural mass of Manhattan, just two miles away. Covering around 35 square miles, the Meadowlands are similar in size, and orientation, to their urban doppelganger. Unlike the highly designed and managed space of the city however, the modern Meadowlands formed more by incident, accident, and happenstance.”
Matt’s presentation at Studio-X last night took on a new cadence and tenor compared to previous CLUI presentations we’ve attended. In the 90 minute slide show, Matt intoned a mesmerizing litany of roads and buildings, illustrated by images that glided past our eyes in a smooth and regular succession. It seemed as if the string of urban, suburban and industrial landscape photos, some aerial, some from ground level, could unfurl forever. Matt’s voice offered a calm, evenly pitched recitation of what he described as “personal” expeditions into the Meadowlands over the past couple of years, requiring countless of hours of driving and resulting in piles of research.
Today, in the light of a new day, we had the opportunity to take to the road and traverse the Meadowlands landscape in CLUI’s 15-person rental van. Matt’s voice provided the day’s soundtrack, fed through the van’s speaker system via a hands-free head-set. Not unlike the presentation the night before, today’s tour was swamp-like in form, possibly modeled after the landscape we toured. Spontaneously we became urban archaeologists seeking disappeared buildings and traces of the past that have been absorbed into the muck of the Meadowlands. The entire day had the feel of a blurry meditation, one continuous transit without any specific destination. We couldn’t really track where we were from inside the van. There were streams of indecipherable exit ramps, clover-leaf loops, fenced off zones, dead ends, and banal industrial strips. It seems you can’t really “arrive” at the Meadowlands. It’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. Many of the buildings and views were eclipsed by window glares and truncated by our constant movement—past guard rails, traffic, trees and waving grasses of invasive species. The sheer quantity of buildings and sites (more than 75) noted on the newly released map makes it impossible to take in the Meadowlands-according-to-CLUI’s “points of interest” in one drive through. Empty industrial and infrastructural megastructures, sprawling parking lots, and abandoned shopping malls populated the horizon.
As the day wore on, we sunk deeper into the swampy geologic and biologic realities of the subsiding landscape, to the tune of a cascade of closed diners, big box stores, data parks, superfund sites, power plants, junk mail dispatch centers, and outdated garbage technologies. Garbage, waste, and trash are literally embedded within the soil of the Meadowlands—and the ever-growing human-made hills of trash have become tall enough to obscure the views between here and there, New Jersey and Manhattan. A nine-minute ride from Penn Station, the Meadowlands is a world apart that runs parallel to New York City, and is materially bound to it, primarily through refuse.
Mid-way through the day, we found ourselves at an unremarkable cemetery on the West Side of the Meadowlands. Here, we stepped out of the van and stood before the grave of Robert Smithson, one of the most significant artists in the Land Art movement of the 1970s. His gravestone is humble and remarkably devoid of any feature that might invoke his obsession with the particularities of the geologic. Smithson’s work is a mighty precursor to so much of the contemporary art being made today, a direct catalyst for Land Use Interpretation—as well as for the geologic interests of FOP.
In 1967, Smithson wrote, in “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey:”
“That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.”
This insight continues to ring true today in complicated ways, as the types and varieties of ruins have only proliferated. Smithson gave us eyes to see them as ruins at all.
By the end of the day we were struck with a feeling that, taken together, Matt’s Studio-X ruminations, the day-long interpretive tour, and CLUI’s investment and time in this place compose a eulogy of sorts, for Robert Smithson and for the remarkable unremarkableness of this “overlooked” place.
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“In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau walked the Atlantic coastline of Cape Cod, recording his adventures in his narrative Cape Cod. To literally follow in Thoreau’s footsteps today would require scuba gear. Cape Cod’s Outer Beach sees an average erosion rate of close to 4 feet per year.” - Cape Cod National Seashore website
What kind of structure should be built on a stretch of land that will inevitably disappear, whose grounds are in a constant state of drifting elsewhere? What kind of design must be invented for a place where geologic change doesn’t unfold in centuries, but in days, or mere hours on the occasion of a major storm?
Erosion is the norm on Cape Cod, a sandy arm of glacial till that was dumped after the last ice age and has been swirling into place ever since. At a wildly popular destination named Herring Cove, the geologic realities of Cape Cod meet the human reality that here, the more than 850,000 visitors a year need a public bathhouse.
After years of deliberation and years of witnessing the beach change in dramatic and irrevocable ways, it appears that architects, engineers, scientists, public officials and the citizens of Provincetown have come up with a design they support and sense can navigate the shifting terrain.
The original Herring Cove bathhouse was developed in the 1950s as a state park headquarters with public bathrooms, dressing rooms, a lifeguard station, a snack bar and a boathouse. Some have described this modernist fortress as a “sand-colored Cold War bunker.” It seems that the architects of this bathhouse were hoping that its bunker-like design would allow it to valiantly outlast the sea it faced. But, 60 years later, the building is in need of top to bottom repair.
FOP recently spent time on the Cape and learned that the continuing erosion of the shoreline has made the existing three buildings in the area unstable. A storm last winter wreaked havoc on a revetment that was built in 1940. The storm also collapsed a tract of the parking lot. According to the Provincetown Banner, the result was “dangling asphalt precipices” and a “steep, crumbling drop-off.”
The historic bathhouse will be torn down in early November of this year. It will be replaced by a more energy-efficient set of structures that have been described as being “light on [their] feet”—agile and responsive to the surrounding environs. The new buildings will take the form of five bungalows surrounding a shaded pavilion, set on pilings and linked to the beach by raised board walks. Each structure will serve a single and specific purpose such as changing room or concessions. The raised pilings and board walks will allow sand and vegetation to move freely beneath the structures and reduce damaging foot traffic through the dunes. And, as the beach continues its predicted erosion, the bungalows can be moved further inland, without requiring a new building to be constructed in their place.
Long-term planning by the National Seashore and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies includes studying currents near the shoreline and the ongoing, natural movement of sand along the beach. Provincetown Conservation Commission chairman Dennis Minsky has stated that, “The ultimate problem is that you have hard revetment, armored protection of a coastal beach, which is inappropriate for the forces operating out there … long-term, there’s no future for that area … The bathhouse itself is going to be replaced by a modular structure that is movable, one that’s going to be much smaller and simpler, and able to be moved in response to the changing shoreline. Ultimately, all that macadam, nature will remove it.”
When we toured the bathhouse last week, we were struck by the sheer proximity of the ocean to the bathhouse’s blocky cement walls and front steps. Surprisingly, nested within the seemingly hardened exterior, were open air changing rooms that directly invite wind, sand, and rain into the structure’s interior. These spaces were desolate and crumbling, yet beautiful and quiet. The sound proofing delivered by the concrete and the framed aperture onto the changing Cape sky and light created a chamber that made us think of the work of James Turrell.
The design of Herring Cove’s new bathhouse, like many others being implemented in communities around the world, assists humans as they grapple with how and what to construct in response to rapidly changing landscapes. Instead of steeling itself against the elements, the new bathhouse will be responsive to them, and move (out of the way). A welcome side effect of structures that stay open and responsive to the environments they reside within, is that they enable humans passing through them to more fully experience where they are.
Local Provincetown artists will stage a 10-day (September 28-October 7th, 2012) creative response to the old bathhouse before it is torn down called Ten Days that Shook the World: The Centennial Decade. There is open call for proposals until August 25th. More information can be found at TendaysofArt.com. The project will involve the screening of films, live performances and site-responsive works.
* unless otherwise noted, all images this page, FOP, July 2012
* Images of the new bathhouse design can be found at Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype.
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smudge studio, from the Feasibility Project (Rachel, NV), 2009
Eighteen months after we first announced the call, via this blog, we’re ready to announce that our co-edited collection of essays, Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life will be released by Punctum Books later this fall. We have designed this book in the tradition of a broadside or pamphlet—a timely “calling out” of a shift in cultural sensibility and practice. Its publication by Punctum Books as downloadable file, bound book, and interactive website will make it readily and widely accessible, portable, and easily shared and exchanged. We hope that these forms will encourage it to move through culture the way a “geologic turn” is now propagating through contemporary consciousness and practice.
Making the Geologic Now offers early sightings of an increasingly widespread turn toward the geologic as source of explanation, motivation, and inspiration for creative responses to conditions of the present moment. As a signal from edges of feasibility, this edited collection circulates images and short essays from over 40 artists, designers, architects, scholars, and journalists who are actively exploring and creatively responding to the geologic depth of “now.”
Contributors’ ideas and works are drawn from architecture, design, contemporary philosophy and art. They are offered as test sites for what might become thinkable or possible if humans were to collectively take up the geologic as our instructive co-designer—as a partner in designing thoughts, objects, systems, and experiences.
Recent natural and human-made events triggered by or triggering the geologic have made volatile earth forces sense-able and relevant with new levels of intensity. As a condition of contemporary life in 2012, the geologic “now” is lived as a cascade of events. Humans and what we build participate in their unfolding. Today, the geologic counts as “the environment” and invites us to extend our active awareness of inhabitation out to the cosmos and down to the Earth’s iron core.
A new cultural sensibility is emerging. As we struggle to understand and meet new material realities of earth and life on earth, it becomes increasingly obvious that the geologic is not just about rocks. We now cohabit with the geologic in unprecedented ways, in teeming assemblages of exchange and interaction among geologic materials and forces and the bio, cosmo, socio, political, legal, economic, strategic, and imaginary.
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 Kagen, 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, 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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Arizona wildfire, May 2012, image Melissa Hincha-Ownby
Wildfires have been making headline news across New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Michigan and Colorado since late May. These fires have disrupted daily life, recreation and commerce across thousand of miles. Just over a year ago, we detailed our encounter with the enormous and rapidly spreading Las Conchas fire outside Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. At that time, the Las Conchas was the largest fire recorded in New Mexican history (burning more than 150,000 acres). Now, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex blaze has taken the title as the largest fire in state history, scorching over a quarter of a million acres.
There appears to be an escalating intensity to the annual wildfire season. The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, presently 55% contained, is described as the most destructive in state history. Last week 32,000 people were evacuated from the area and 350 homes have been destroyed.
Colorado Springs, June 2012, images daisyelaine
Anthropogenic reasons for the fires are hard to deny. A recent NY Times article cited policies that began in the early 1900s that lead to more trees than are healthy or natural in forests. These policies, coupled with fire suppression and overgrazing by livestock, have set the stage for the unprecedented fires to-date. In the past decade, long periods of dry weather, as a result of climate change, have led to fires that are fundamentally different from those of years prior. Recent fires, instead of assisting in forest regeneration, have not kept to forest floors, where they simply clear accumulated ground cover. The latest fires instead have ascended trees and burned entire forests, irrevocably devastating surrounding soil and eco-systems. Growing data suggest these fires are not within the scale of the naturally balanced carbon cycle, which means that they can exacerbate climate change even further, likely inducing an even more vicious fire cycle in the future.
Dr. Allen, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that the fires in New Mexico this year have wiped out entire forests of juniper and piñon. These are species that won’t be able to regenerate, especially as annual temperatures continue to rise (NOAA’s May “State of the Climate” report data details that May 2012 was the second warmest May in recorded history). Plants that can grow in the wake of such fires, primarily grasses and shrubs, will not remotely resemble the forests that existed previously. Dr. Allen suggests that there is no way to preserve what is being erased by these fires—adaptation to the new conditions is the only option.
The resulting, continent-wide changes rippling through human lives and landscapes are of acute interest to us here at FOP. Plants, animals and humans are in the midst of confronting unprecedented scales of change. Forests that have been a constant presence for centuries suddenly no longer exist.
In this new environment, configuration appears to be of growing consequence. Borders between “wilderness” and “residential” appear ever more slippery. Where to build? How soon will the “next” event of this magnitude take place? What species can thrive in what becomes of “here”? What tools do we need to navigate this new territory?
We will continue to track these fires. There is much to learn from how various species will reconfigure their lives and systems in response to such unpredictable events of change.
maps of fires currently in-progress as of July 2, 2012, image Google
heat wave map June 17-24, 2012, image via NASA
In related news, a new satellite device for tracking global deforestation was recently released at the Rio+20 sustainability conference.