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still from Rinko Kawauchi’s Ametsuchi book preview on Vimeo
For the last few weeks, the final paragraph of Timothy Morton’s “Guilt, Shame, Sadness: Tuning to Coexistence” has been hard to get out of our minds. It’s been inconvenient not to be able to shake it off, but this inability to forget affirms the power of its provocation:
“If we want to progress ecologically, for instance if we want to have more people accepting the reality of global warming, then we need to walk them through an experience that is phenomenologically equivalent to accepting global warming, rather than bludgeoning them with facts or trying to ‘guilt them out’ or shame them, which will only breed denial. The best way to do this is to make contact with the liquid center of sadness, often frozen into melancholy, at the core of sentient being. This liquid core is the trace of coexistence, shorn of coexistents, unconditional, strange, palpable yet withdrawn, uncanny, sad. That way, no bludgeoning is required: we will have poured people into the right psychic space to accept the very large-scale, long-term issues that beset this planet.” – from “Guilt, Shame, Sadness: Tuning to Coexistence” by Timothy Morton
Many artists, citizens, and others spend a great deal of time considering how to engage issues of our time that are induced by “hyperobjects“— how to translate those issues into something that is neither activism nor polarizing politics, but that taps into deeply experienced human realities. Though Morton’s “we” and “them” in the quote above feels a bit polarized, we assume he actually means to include himself/ourselves in those who “need to be talked to.” And, even though we find it challenging to fully relate to his characterization of a “liquid center of sadness,” something about his statement hits the mark.
As he suggests, his statement is not a “bludgeoning,” it is a description of a reality. It’s currently impossible to go through a day without receiving news that challenges our best of hopes and intentions for the future. A simple weather report can often send one reeling. Whether it’s violent storms, floods, earthquakes, spikes of radiation currently flowing into the Pacific Ocean, or global warming, we’re already in the midst of an accelerating planetary reality that’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. So, what if we took Morton’s provocation to heart and used art to attempt to discover ways that give ourselves and others lived experiences of what exceeds us — instead of ignoring, “taking a break,” or leaving it to those who come after us to address? What if we actually tried to create experiences, through aesthetic practice, that are “phenomenologically equivalent to” global warming or any host of wicked problem sized issues pressing upon us?
We think Morton himself has made a good start at offering such a lived experience to readers of his new book Hyperobjects. For those readers, “acceptance” of global warming might mean allowing seemingly mundane activities to become occasions for one’s brain/body to inhabit and connect, on a daily basis, with the vast evolutionary processes that have been in play long before human life on earth:
“I start the engine of my car. Liquified dinosaur bones burst into flame. I walk up a chalky hill. Billions of ancient pulverized undersea creatures grip my shoes. I breathe. Bacterial pollution from some Archean cataclysm fills my alveoli—we call oxygen. I type this sentence. Mitochondria, anaerobic bacteria hiding in my cells from the Oxygen Catastrophe, spur me with energy. They have their own DNA. I hammer a nail. In consistent layers of ore, bacteria deposited the iron in Earth’s crust. I turn on the TV and see snow. A sliver of snow is a trace of the Cosmic Microwave Background left over from the Big Bang. I walk on top of the life-forms. The oxygen in our lungs is bacterial outgassing. Oil is the result of some dark, secret collusion between rocks and algae and plankton millions and millions of years in the past. When you look at oil you’re looking at the past. Hyperobjects are time-stretched to such a vast extreme that they become almost impossible to hold in mind.” – Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (p. 58)
Acknowledging co-existence and what Morton calls interobjectivity among human life/bodies/actions and pre-planetary cosmological events invites our “liquid center” to sense remarkable waves of incoming affectivity beyond our singular selves — we are still experiencing the Big Bang today! Even as humans “burn up” the material products of evolutionary history at rapidly accelerating rates, when we enact modes of thinking/moving that sense the co-shapings going on among the real and lively materials surrounding us, we become more capable of acting in relation to spaces and times larger than the “here” and “now.” Evolutionary mystery and enchantment link materials, through time, to forces and configurations that exceed human cognition. When we move and act in ways that take the present as something more than a narrow endpoint or culmination, we co-exist with the hyperobjects that we inhabit (global warming etc.).
While in Chelsea last week, we made a point to see Rinko Kawauchi’s photography exhibition Ametsuchi (“ametsuchi” is a combination of two Japanese characters 雨天, meaning “heaven and earth”). The title comes from of one of the oldest pangrams in Japanese — a chant in which each character of the Japanese syllabary is used. The exhibition brings “together images of distant constellations and tiny figures lost within landscapes, as well as photographs of a traditional style of controlled-burn farming (noyaki) in which the cycles of cultivation and recovery span decades and generations. Punctuating the series are images of Buddhist rituals and other religious ceremonies — a suggestion of other means by which humankind has traditionally attempted to transcend time and memory.” The large photos are breathtaking, but the wall text accompanying the show was equally powerful.
stills from Rinko Kawauchi’s Ametsuchi book preview on Vimeo
Towards the end of the text, Kawauchi writes:
“…there is an invisible point of tangency between apparently unrelated things. I investigate the connection between dreams and reality; I consider the beginnings of things. The sunset I see from the window of my home tonight is similar but different from what I saw yesterday. Every day is in a continuum of new days, each somehow different from the next. How can we say that there is no connection between those who pray in a far-off land at the end of the day? Throughout the world, we are comrades who share grace, and share as well the challenge to overcome any number of difficult obstacles. Even if our paths never cross, we who exist now on the same Earth certainly share something, a shared time and a shared place.” – Rinko Kawauchi, wall text for the exhibition, Ametsuchi at Aperture Foundation
Several times in Morton’s new book Hyperobjects, he mentions global warming deniers. Those who reject what can’t be “proven,” despite material consequences ramifying around the planet. Perhaps it is through a graceful acknowledgement of the co-existence of all that’s visible — and invisible — to us as humans, that creative practice can begin to generate the many “phenomenological equivalents” we need? Kawauchi seems to be reaching towards something similar through her text, but she simply states that the connections, though invisible, can’t be denied. We are of the mesh simply by inhabiting the Earth today.
How then, might we comport ourselves from within what we see, taste, know and feel — when what we are “within” exceeds our comprehension and sensing capacities? We offer Karolina Sobecka’s Clouds, from both sides (currently on view at IMC Gallery in Climate Art: New Ways of Seeing Data) as a place to begin. We first met Sobecka in Finland last month. In her remarkable series, we see the world from our usual perspective, looking up at the clouds. Sobecka pairs a familiar cloud gazing image with a satellite view of the same moment and location. This double viewing grounds the hyperobject (climate) to the earth while taking human perceptions beyond ourselves, where our embodied vision/capacities drop off. The real-time simultaneity is startling (there’s more happening than I can see and sense, even of the very place where I stand). This disruption gives pause as we realize there’s no division (except in our minds) between what we understand as “solid” (the things literally before us) and the vast continuous rotation of the Earth, seen from above (a “place” and scale larger than us, moving in real-time).
In Sobecka’s own words, “The project’s aim is to create objects that are mixtures of physical form and psychology. It is a strategy to explore the overlap of the material and immaterial: the values that shape the technological innovation and material culture, and the philosophy that inscribes humans in nature.”
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Within 24 hours of returning from Field_Notes – Deep Time, our recent residency in Finland, we noticed Plantago Major (also known as “white man’s footprint”) in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for the first time. A week prior, Oliver Kelhammer spotted this plant on the trail outside the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station. He describes Plantago as a “cosmopolitan.” He explained this is a notable species that can adapt, and even thrive, in disrupted environments. Its seeds stick to the bottoms of shoes and travel the world, with humans, to colonize new habitats. Plantago Major has potent medicinal and healing properties. Our newfound abilities to recognize this plant in our NYC backyard was the first of many realizations that we had been on a major journey that will inform and shape our work for months to come.
During our time in Finland we (smudge studio) served as “hosts” to five other participants that collectively composed the “Deep Futures in the Making” Field_Notes group. Our charge was not a simple one. We were to consider, embody, and perhaps even lessen the gap between human time perception and the geological time/context in which we are embedded as a species. Through the generosity and thoughtful insights of our group members over hours of conversation in the station’s seminar room, over meals, over tea beside a fire in a traditional Kota, and on walks alone and with others, we feel that we actually gained some traction on this daunting subject.
One of our most generative outcomes was to arrive at the following question, “What does it take to imagine and act in relation to deep futures”? Our group wondered, together, what kind of humans might we have to be/come to actually act in ways that relate to a future we won’t be around to see? What does it take to not just leave the task of caring for that future to those who come after us? What kind of practices, skills, affordances and might we begin to cultivate now, to ease future generations’ burden to adapt to the remarkable changes that are presently in-the-making?
It’s a rare opportunity to have the pleasure, and charge, to think so intensely about such an intimidating subject. The far future’s relegation as obscure subject quickly transformed into a remarkably relevant and urgent task for “now.” While other groups at the station seemed to wake before dawn with clear plans and schedules, as hosts of our particular group, we wagered that, in order to bridge the “gap” between human life today and in the far future, we would need to personally cultivate an experience of time that is more “open” and “expansive” that what we allow ourselves during our usual “busy” lives. We decided to invite a cognitive shift to occur and a relevance of the deep future to be sensed by asking group members to activate the art-making practices that are most meaningful and comfortable to them, and use them in service of this shared question. They would extrapolate from whatever art practices they are now engaged, use those practices as “sightlines” into imagined deep futures, and report back via field notes.
The fragility of the tundra, the unmistakably clean air and water, and the durability of the wall of rock looming over us (named Saana), lent material ground to our task. Much of this environment is very likely to change with the opening of the North Sea Passage, and as migrations of people seek cooler latitudes and distance from rising seas. Kilpisjärvi became an aperture onto the changes occurring nearby and far way on the planet, and a context for grounding our discussions and serious concerns for the short and long-term.
By the end of the week, we sense what was produced inside the space and time of this residency will relay beyond, offering potent new trajectories to our own practices. Rather than attempt to summarize what was generated, we offer four brief points as relays from our “Deep Futures in the Making” group:
• deep futures in the making are unknowable—but we know that change, as a material force, is certain to continue to unfold form here at increased speeds and intensities
• it is import to find ways to navigate change as it occurs
• the challenge is not to fear change, but to become curious about it
• there emerged within our group, a shared desire to invent practices that are gracious towards futures in the making
Reflecting on this list during the past week, it seems these points describe states of mind and being that aren’t so unlike the adaptive qualities of the Plantago Major, which thrives in both the changing arctic and the changing urban streets of New York. The abilities to move, to find “home” in various disruptive conditions, and to do so while carrying with us graceful affordances (such as the healing properties of the Plantago Major) is something we can all aim for in the days and years to come.
Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, trail on right where Plantago Major was sighted, FOP 2013
* also, back in New York, tonight we launch Look Only at the Movement at Parsons. Please join us in the Bark Room, ground floor 2 West 13th Street. We hope to see you there and are happy to report that the project was recently featured in Places: Design Observer.
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For eight years we based our practice in the “field” as much as possible, taking research trips that involved days of driving, seeking residencies in remote locations, producing projects that make us into travelers in our own city, etc.. Though we take great joy in translating our work into experiences that can resonate with gallery-going audiences, the core of our practice, the space and time where we generate the ideas, content, and discover new trajectories that lead to our “next,” almost always happens when we are outside, moving through environments (or are at least being still while outside).
Because our inclinations tend towards any opportunity to “go remote,” we’re thrilled to be traveling 1200km north of Helsinki to Kilpisjärvi, Finland soon to act as hosts in the upcoming art and science field laboratory called Field_Notes_Deep Time.
Unlike many institutionally-organized events, the foundational idea of the Field_Notes gathering is that being there — the specific “there” of the Finnish arctic (69°03’N; 20°50’E, to be exact) — while inhabiting a Biological Station for several days, walking across tundra and being in direct proximity with bare geology, will enable those present to productively explore the “dichotomy between human time-perception and comprehension, and the time of biological, environmental, and geological processes in which we are embedded.”
This is a dream location for us. We’ve had a small taste of how time and light move differently in the far north compared to the southern regions we are accustomed too. And we know that being somewhere new always unsettles habits and presuppositions. For us, Kilpisjärvi is the perfect context to take up ideas that feel urgent, but can be challenging to explore in habitualized daily life. It is from this place of disconnect that we hope to generate and cultivate practices that can directly fuel and guide daily life (wherever we find ourselves) towards comprehending the material connection we have to changing planetary realities—realities that are irrevocably linked to deep futures.
The focused frame we have developed for our time and shared considerations is “Deep Futures in the Making:”
“Potential futures are always in the making. Contemporary human activities and dynamic earth forces continuously shape and reshape emerging futures – both short and long-term. Right now, emerging human awareness of the Anthropocene and events such as climate change, the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and the Onkalo nuclear waste storage facility project are actively setting up evolutionary paths of human societies and geo-, bio- and built environments.”
In collaboration with our deep futures cohort group (Simo Alitalo, Heather Davis, Terike Haapoja, Oliver Kellhammer, Pia Lindman), we will aim to activate a variety of durations and conceptions of time. We will develop, test and evaluate specific artistic approaches based on the interplay of art and science. And we’ll explore how we might more real-ly comprehend effects (biologic and geologic) that extend into the far future, even as we acknowledge that we are already deeply, and materially embedded in this reality in the present moment. How do we simultaneously hold that thought and act? We are especially excited about what insights the far north, its latitude, its remoteness, its wildness, its sights, sounds and colors, may relay to us about changing conditions that are currently ramifying planet-wide.
Aerial image of Kilpisjärvi from late 1980’s. Kilpisjärvi biological station is located in the middle of the image, south of the road
Our group is one of five that will be at work in Kilpisjärvi. The others include: Journey to the Post-Anthropogenic, Deep Time of Life and Art, and Time and Landscape, and the provocative, Second Order.
On September 23 and 24th, at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki, there will be a free and open to the public informal symposium to share impressions from our time in the field. A full program and description has been posted online. We look forward to relaying signals from the field station as we are able, and upon return. In the meantime, all are welcome to join the open Field_Notes Facebook group, follow along and post comments.
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Fukushima Daiichi power plant and water tanks, image Kyodo/Reuters, August 20, 2013
In the lead up to the start of the academic semester we’ve had resiliency on our minds. It’s a concept that seems to be increasing in cultural resonance. Andrew Zolli, researcher of resilience, and curator and executive director of PopTech, recently wrote on his blog that usage of the word “resilience” has more than doubled since 1990. He also shares a link to Google’s Ngrams Viewer, which visualizes (in graph form) word frequency of books scanned by Google. The data gets interesting when one cross lists several terms, such as economic resilience, psychological resilience, ecological resilience, community resilience and social resilience. As a whole, contemporary humans certainly seem to be talking and writing more about resilience. Whether we are actually becoming more resilient as a species is an open question.
After listening to Zolli’s interview with Krista Tippett from early May, “A Shift to Humility: Resiliency and Expanding the Edge of Change” we’re convinced that resilience, inclusive of so much complexity across social, environmental, technological and infrastructural realities, is perhaps one of the most useful concepts for engaging the challenges of our contemporary moment. Zolli explains we are now living through, rather than waiting for, the effects of decades—if not centuries—of our own inaction.
In the interview, Zolli lays out a “design brief for the 21st century.” It includes thriving in the face of change, systems that sense emerging disruptions, systems that encourage cooperation, and the creation of systems that fail “gracefully.” Failing gracefully means that when one component of the system fails, it doesn’t bring down the entire system. For Zolli, resilience isn’t just an infrastructural affordance for navigating hurricanes and other natural disasters without suffering economic or infrastructural collapse. Resilience is also a human—and humane—concept that we must cultivate within ourselves as part of any resilient system that includes the built/cultural context in which we live. This can be an immense challenge, because we’re always engaged in an entanglement of systems that unfold at various speeds of effect and change which don’t necessarily happen at scales easily sensed by humans.
Still, as disruptions in our systems become more and more the norm, we don’t have to be destroyed emotionally, socially, or even materially. This claim puts a twist in current narratives about the challenges our species face, especially climate change. Zolli explains that if we aim to become a resilient species, individuals need solid, social networks (of the analog kind) and a set of “hearty” mental habits. He emphasizes that the social support systems need to be in place and nurtured before we need them. If you wait until disaster strikes, it’s probably too late. To believe that you are a resilient human, Zolli says, life has to feel meaningful and we have to believe we have agency. What would it take for each of us to feel resilient in the face of the next Hurricane Sandy? Or, more generally, to feel life as having deep meaning, even as we come to accept that resources aren’t infinite and disruptive, perhaps uncomfortable changes are going to keep coming? How can we feel enlivened by inhabiting this “expanding edge of change” and live it as a space of creative possibility? There isn’t a clear path or “checklist” on “how to” live in relation to these changes. In many cases, we will need to invent whatever amounts to the most resilient responses in the moment, and then navigate on as best we can. This work is vital creative work that requires individuals to spend time considering.
This fall, one half of FOP (Jamie Kruse) is teaching a first-year foundation course at Parsons, The New School for Design, called Sustainable Systems. The course is part of a new curriculum being rolled out this year, and it is included in The New School’s C6 project (Coalition to Confront Climate Change Challenges in Cities). The inclusion of the concept of resilience in the course description is encouraging, as is the overall brief:
This course is a required first-year course that provides a foundational understanding of the scientific and social issues related to the design of resilient urban futures. An understanding of the constraints, challenges, and opportunities presented by the need to design products, systems, and services that are more socially, environmentally, and economically resilient is at the core of a Parsons education. This course is where that work begins … By combining sequenced field trips and lectures to locations around New York City to prompt discussions and context-based learning related to sustainability, ecology, and systems with studio-based labs where fieldwork and applied scientific methods will be translated into informed art and design work, we will begin to build a creative agency that supports diversity, adaptability, and resilience in the face of ever-changing conditions.
It’s exciting to be engaged in a course with so much potential. I (Jamie) have spent some time developing my own definition of resilience, which has become a bit of a manifesto, and offered this to students for discussion on the first day:
Resiliency is the capacity to be flexible and adaptable in relation to complex events. Rather than striving to “recover” (return to what was) or “endure rigidly,” we instead aim to navigate change responsively. We make intentions and take actions that are made to lessen long-term impacts in the present, while attempting to keep future actions open to reconsideration and augmentation.
For example, we ask questions such as: Given this particular challenge or event of change, what response is appropriate to this moment, this place, this configuration of forces and materials? How might we best ensure that our processes and practices invite flexibility of response into the far future?
Zolli’s interview offers clear explanation of why it’s time to trade in words such as “sustainability” for the concept of resiliency. Unlike the concept of sustainability, resiliency doesn’t imply that we are aiming for balance, because balance is impossible. Nor are we working to develop solutions-based strategies. Sustainability’s aim for “balance” distracts from the magnitude of change at hand, where all actions have effects and consequences that often far exceed our capacities to grasp or control.
A big part of resiliency happens to be humility. Instead of being interpreted as “giving up” or “giving in,” humility means we get to embrace the reality of living in a complex system that truly always has been, and will be, beyond us. It also means we accept the inevitability that systems, many of which we have designed, fail. We actually suggest a break here from Zolli’s language. Rather than talking of system “failure,” we’d suggest speaking of system “change.” Stasis is what fails. Change is inevitable and the fact that it comes does not mean a failure has taken place.
So, what if we accept that humans aren’t necessarily masters of our technologies—or the planet? What might we invent from here? Might we begin to wager less on stability? We can’t help but wonder what different scenarios we might be seeing around the Fukushima event in Japan if such a stance became a part of our deep cultural background assumptions. At Fukushima, for over two years, a technological design has been failing in way that is far from graceful. Its reliance on a single component—electricity—continues to ramify catastrophe. Here, each hour spawns millennia of planetary effect. In this way, the event is an ongoing reality check regarding so many current practices and technologies in need of resilience.
concrete reservoir at Fukushima Daiichi, image Tokyo Electric Power Company
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driver Tommy Cash at a Colorado rest stop, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
Save the date! On October 3, 2013 we will launch Look Only at the Movement, our recently completed video work, at Parsons, The New School for Design. The video, accompanying map, logbook and site key will be on view in the Sheila C. Johnson lobby from October 3 through December 5th. We are excited to kick off the project’s two-year exhibition relay at Parsons, and we hope you can join us.
Look Only at the Movement is the culmination of a 12-day research trip staged last fall and supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. It’s the result of more than 10 months of editing and production work. On our research and travels, we came into contact with only a handful of the hundreds of nuclear related sites around the country. Our project offers primary documentation of storage infrastructures and engineered landscapes, as well as mobile infrastructures that facilitate the movement of nuclear materials along U.S. interstate highways. The work responds to not only these sites, but also their larger, environmental and topographical contexts in the American landscape and the mobile infrastructures and human beings who track and move-with these critical materials.
The opening at Parsons begins at 7pm with a brief artist talk and screening in the Bark Room. A reception and chance to view the work and share comments in the lobby gallery follows. Most of our travels for the project took place in the Western United States, but on October 3rd we will share details about the project’s “local” expedition to Niskayuna, NY, home to the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.
The Parsons exhibition includes two monitors that will continuously loop the nearly three-hour long, two-channel video. This upcoming spring, the project will be re-interpreted for the Santa Fe Institute of Art, and will include large photographic prints and Super 8 footage. From Santa Fe, the project will be reconfigured for exhibition at CLUI Wendover during their Summer 2014 residency season and then migrate to the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum for the Fall 2014. Look Only at the Movement will close at the Nevada Museum of Art in Spring 2015 with a site-specific exhibition that includes material traces and “tools” of our practice. We’ll share some of the processes and objects that we’ve developed over the course of several years in order to be “up to” the challenges of meeting and creatively responding to the movements, realities and potencies of nuclear materials as they flow through and alter American landscapes.
At each venue, a traveling logbook will be on display that invites visitors to relay messages, questions and comments to future audiences for the work. Keep an eye on the project webpage for highlights of the relayed comments and to follow along as the project’s exhibition circuit re-enacts some of the routes of nuclear waste transportation—and our research itinerary.
A potent tale has been set into motion across the American landscape, and it is only just beginning. Look Only at the Movement juxtaposes two entangled worlds as they unfold across one another: the streaming American Highway system and its travelers’ punctuating encounters with nuclear waste transport, disposal cells, and sites of remediation. The project offers a meditation-in-motion for audiences. It invites imaginings, curiosity, and logistical questions about how contemporary life, landscape, and infrastructure design will, for foreseeable futures, bend their realities around the need to contain and indefinitely move-with nuclear materiality.
inside the Clive Facility, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
inside the Clive Facility, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
inside the Clive Facility, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
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“There is no precedent in the world to create a water-shielding wall with frozen soil on such a large scale.”
– Japanese government spokesman and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Reality is going speculative in Japan with the recent decision to build a frozen wall of soil in attempts to contain radioactive groundwater currently spilling into the Pacific Ocean. We are in awe of this endeavor. The Japanese government has recently decided to intervene in the ongoing crisis and join Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) to create a “vast network of coolant pipes” that will create a 1.4km frozen soil barrier capable of stopping contaminated water from entering the Pacific, as it has been since at least June. The unfortunate truths are that the design will take at least 2 years to implement and there is no precedent for such a project. Tepco has already attempted a soil hardening project at the site, but this did not achieve the desired results. Ongoing failures aren’t surprising given that 1000 tons of fresh groundwater flow from the mountains towards the ocean each day and Fukushima Daiichi exists in the space between. Apparently, 400 tons of water end up inside the reactor buildings everyday, while 300 more tons flow directly into the sea after passing through contaminated areas. The Japan Times says another 300 uncontaminated tons flow daily into the ocean. Trenches have been dug to try to contain the radioactive water, but so far all attempts to date have not fully succeeded.
We hope for the best for this latest plan. But it is remarkable to witness how the overall project is predicated on stability of earth and electricity to support the project. And such stability is far from given in this tsunami ravaged and earthquake prone location. But there isn’t much of a choice, and there isn’t any simple way to end this ongoing event that has sustained a crisis pitch for more than two years.
It also seems important to remember that the plant at Fukushima was originally designed to be an energy generating infrastructure. It’s as if a total reverse of “power” has taken place. The crippled infrastructures now generate ramifying risk effects for humans. These will be economic (the earth-freezing project is projected to cost $400 million USD), cultural, social and environmental. Humans will be left to grapple with these effects for foreseeable futures.
We’re not sure how long the ice wall is intended to last. So far no reports have explain the life expectancy of the barrier. But we can’t help wonder how the containment design, reliant on stable earth and constant electricity supplies, can outlast the simple laws of gravity that will send water continuously from the mountains to the ocean for decades to come.
As we follow this story on The New York Times, it seems to us that we’ve all just crossed a threshold, into a situation for which humans are now required to become massively creative and innovative at speeds, scales, and complexities that are without precedent-—not, unfortunately, in the service of life-enhancing innovations and designs—but in the service of damage control and risk mitigation. Human lives and energies (as well as economies) will have to be redirected for untold futures in order to support this and other climate/environment altering endeavors:
“Indeed, the proposed ice wall is seen here as a symbol of both the daunting technological challenges posed by the cleanup, and the need — critics say desperation — for creative solutions as the plant, which already stores enough contaminated water to fill 160 Olympic-size swimming pools, is faced with having to store hundreds of more tons every day.
The plan calls for freezing the soil around the reactor buildings to keep out groundwater before it can become contaminated. The wall would run nearly a mile in length and reach almost 100 feet into the ground. Officials said no wall of ice on such a scale has ever been attempted before, and was thus beyond the capacities of Tepco alone to pull off.
But even as Tepco — and now the government — place a bet on the ambitious plans for the wall, experts have begun to raise concerns, including that the wall will need to be consistently cooled using electricity at a plant vulnerable to power failures. The original disaster was brought on by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out electricity.” – Marin Fackler and Hiroko Tabuchi for the New York Times
Some have suggested that in and as the Anthropocene, humans now have assumed a position at the center of networks of power and force, as we transform the planet we inhabit “all the way down” to its geologic profile. We’d like to suggest that rather than being at the center (or top) of the distribution of contemporary global effects, we humans are situated on and as the ground of those effects. We are sitting, along with the rest of biological life, pretty much in the crosshairs as receivers of effects we ourselves have been generating in recent centuries. We are setting up conditions that all present and future humans will have to mitigate. Just how we will creatively meet and navigate unprecedented (in human history) instabilities in planetary dynamics and material instabilities that we have, in part, generated, is unclear from here. Inconveniently, our best attempts at coming up with creative solutions capable of establishing some stability seem destined to be performed in the midst of increasingly unstable environments.
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“The physical experience of centuries-old ice from the glaciers of Eliasson’s native Iceland makes tangible a history that extends beyond the human life span—time that is measured in thousands of years rather than mere decades.” — MoMA Ps1
This summer, there are at least two sub-freezing spaces where heat-weary New Yorkers can retreat. One is the new Minus5 Ice Bar in Manhattan (with two other locations in Las Vegas). The other, a small room at MoMA PS1.
At the door of the Minus5 bar guests are offered parkas or faux fur coats and can sit at a bar sculpted of ice, drinking vodka out of an ice glass, in a space kept near 23 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The Minus5 website claims their frigid environment is constructed entirely of imported blocks of “100% Canadian ice.”
One hundred percent Icelandic ice that “broke off” from Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, about six months ago, can be found at MoMA PS1, courtesy of the artist Olafur Eliasson (he first exhibited ice as art in 2006 in Berlin). To keep the glacial ice from melting further, the thermostat of the room at PS1 is set to maintain a temperature between zero and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Eliasson’s project, provocatively titled, Your Waste of Time is a “module” of PS1’s EXPO 1: New York, an exhibition that describes itself as: “an exploration of ecological challenges in the context of the economic and sociopolitical instability of the early 21st century” (read more).
In full disclosure, FOP has visited Eliasson’s ice room only. Yet, when we consider these two icy chambers, one bar and one art installation, in juxtaposition and situated in New York City (a location increasingly forced to accept its precarious exposure to impending rising sea-levels induced by melting glaciers), some interesting resonances occur. Vast material affordances support the existence of both of these endeavors. Though the air conditioner at PS1 keeping the Icelandic ice frozen is fueled in part by the museum’s solar panels, when we asked a gallery attendant if PS1 would be keeping the panels after EXPO 1 is over, the reply was “no.” This seemed awkward, given the long view Eliasson’s work is attempting to make possible and the overall mandate of exhibition.
Regardless, it’s worth noting that, at least at this moment, both the artists and entrepreneurs who created these icy spaces inhabit a planet and economies that enable the existence of such resource intensive projects and their myriad and complex systems of support. For a look at how chilled landscapes that are in service to the American food supply play out on a daily basis across the entire continent, on behalf of all of us, we highly recommend following the work of Nicola Twilley and her co-curated exhibition with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Perishable: An Exploration of the Refigerated Landscape of America.
Ice filled rooms, at least in theory, would have been a seductive destination for anyone last week as New York City heat indices soared over 100 degrees. But these two spaces are also entrenched in their respective cultural contexts. They seem to be attracting the usual audiences that are drawn to hip art museums or gimmicky bars even on days when heat indices don’t trigger warnings. But, once you are at PS1 or Minus5, the physical impact of the cold presents a degree of exposure atypical in daily life. You can’t linger comfortably inside either, unless you have gear. So what kind of experience do you have if you visit the ice at PS1, where fur coats aren’t offered as you enter the room?
Eliasson said he hopes Your Waste of Time encourages “contemplation.” He also said: “most people are disconnected from the effects of climate change because they can’t physically see it.” While we attempted to take up this invitation during our visit, we could only endure the sensory onslaught for around two minutes. Several small groups of people raced in and out, mostly laughing and snapping photos of themselves by the ice before escaping in less than 30 seconds. No one seemed to be pondering climate change or considering the material origins of the displaced ice. The twelve chunks scattered around the room looked dirty and haggard under the glaring lights and peeling ceiling. Though a deep and mesmerizing blue could almost be seen below the surface of a few pieces, but loud fans blasting at very high decibels obliterated any attempt to gather one’s thoughts and “be with the ice.” The staging of the room felt like an afterthought, more akin to an industrial meat locker than a context capable of assisting visitors in grasping the complex and challenging material realities displayed before them.
If you are a dedicated art seeker willing to make a pilgrimage to one of New York’s outer boroughs, you can try to experience first hand how, as Eliasson says, “these glaciers bear testimony to our history-being suspended and frozen for thousands of years-and now they are melting away, as if our whole history is fading.” A fragment of this reality is materially present in the room. Perhaps the increasingly limited and precious nature of ice, its “endangered species” quality, is what makes both the Minus5 bar and the Eliasson sculpture so culturally magnetic, more in theory than in practice.
In our contemporary moment, buffeted by the forces of hyper-objects, it’s hard to pin-point just which of the so many systems that are “out of balance” is the most salient at any given moment. We should feel something “authentic” about being in chilling and intimate proximity to one of the forces of material planetary change — ice — and knowing that it would be melting away, even in waters off Iceland, if it weren’t on life support inside PS1. When we actually think about it, we know it should already be gone. When we take the time to project our imaginations to where this ice came from and pair that reality up with what the climate is like outside the walls of PS1 — it’s easier to comprehend how the change is irreversible.
What then, might we sense or imagine while visiting the bar at Minus5 ? Here, ice is offered more as a signifier for entertainment and luxury, a break from New York reality. It’s definitely not intended to raise questions concerning an impending environmental collapse. It’s easy to propose that it is the over-the-top material resources required to maintain such over-the-top rooms of ice that is driving the glacial ice across town into extinction, especially when it’s 105 degrees outside. But, most of us still can’t, or don’t want to cognitively connect experiences such as Your Waste of Time, to Minus5, to our collectively air-conditioned/heated/electrified homes, refrigerators, airplanes, offices, cars, museums and bars. And it’s here, in this gap of understandings about the vastly different scales of effects — of time and material change — that we miss engaging our window of opportunity to respond creatively and consider what it is that both the Icelandic ice at PS1 and the Canadian ice at Minus5 already “know” about our present condition, even if we can’t stay in the room long enough to realize it for ourselves.
According to Eliasson’s National Geographic interview about his project, at the end of EXPO 1 in early September, his ice will continue on the path it started before being detoured for exhibition in New York. It will melt. It is estimated to be around 800 years old, which means it was born in the last “Little Ice Age.” Despite being relatively young in geologic terms, we think that the spectacular transformation of its form, when 800 years of materiality will soon melt away in a matter of hours, is remarkable. It’s also potentially the most interesting part of the piece, especially if its waters are “released” into the Hudson River or New York Harbor. There, they could meet up with other glacial waters that will be flowing this way in due time. Disappointingly, allowing audiences to view the melting doesn’t seem to be part of the exhibition plan. And unfortunately that means the EXPO 1 installation might be remembered primarily as an eerie, repelling, air-conditioned “life-support” system for displaced Icelandic ice, rather than as a dynamic, aesthetic prosthesis for helping humans to sense and track the changes that are unfolding around us.
Minus5, on the other hand, will preserve their Canadian ice through summer and winter, offering ample opportunity to keep the illusion of ice-abundance alive.