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aerial view of the Euphoria dune shack, image courtesy © Christopher Seufert Photography
What does Euphoria look and feel like? Later this month we’ll have a first-hand report to share, as we’ve recently been granted a highly coveted (by some) invitation to inhabit a dune shack named Euphoria in the Province Lands of Cape Cod. The shack, which is completely off the grid (no heat, hot water, electricity etc.) is managed by the Peaked Hill Trust, a small, but sturdy organization that has enabled several of these historically notable, wabi sabi “dune shack” structures to endure since the late 1940s.
This is our fourth inhabitation of a dune shack, though it will be our first time in Euphoria. In 2009 we experienced Thalassa, a tiny shack named for a Greek primordial sea goddess. Dune shacks have a storied and celebrated spot in Cape Cod history. We highly recommend Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees for an introduction to the romance of dune life. For one week, contemporary inhabitants are invited to trade in cell phones (which are allowed, but have no signal), email, heat, modern conveniences and all senses of sexagesimal time, for beachfront access to the Atlantic Ocean, dark nights, total silence (minus the cry of coyotes), and a daily life rhythm that almost immediately syncs up with that of the sun.
For years we’ve thought of the dune shacks as akin to Japanese teahouses, porous architectural spaces used as apertures onto their surrounding landscapes. These small, intimate quarters simplify life down to bare spaces of intentional exchange and cognizant engagement with the local environment. While recently visiting the “Edo Pop” exhibition at the Japan Society, we re-discovered the famed woodblock project Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai. It’s not widely known that Hokusai’s most famous print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is actually part of the Thirty-Six Views series. The prints of this series were created between 1826-33 (and aren’t to be mistaken for the series of the same name produced by Ando Hiroshige in 1858, who also created the famous Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road between 1833-34).
Tea House at Koishikawa, The Morning After Snowfall from Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji
Eriji in the Suruga Province, from Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji
Rainstorm Beneath the Summit, from Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji
Due to its popularity, Hokusai later expanded Thirty-Six Views to a series of 46. The prints vividly depict travel and other forms of human movement through landscapes — while in relation to the occasionally formidable, and always changeable, forces of nature surrounding Mt. Fuji, Japan’s most beloved natural feature. At times, seasonal variations such as wind, waves, rain storms, lightning or a river’s current take visual precedence over the volcano. Throughout the series, Fuji-san appears as a site in flux, unfixed and seemingly as variant as the temperamental environments surrounding it. It ranges from being the primary focus of a composition to being depicted as a tiny cone in the corner of a print. When considered across the series, it becomes apparent that the artist has ensured that there is no one single way to view, experience or “image” the named subject of these prints — or “capture” its enduring spiritual force.
While looking at the prints and learning of their beloved status with Japanese people, we couldn’t help but sense a relevance to the WPA poster series, “See America,” produced a hundred years later in the United States. As in Japan, these posters also encouraged a country of citizens to get outside and appreciate the mesmerizing wonders of their national landscape.
Carlsbad Caverns, from the “See America” series, Alexander Dux. [between 1936 and 1939]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Shore at Tago Bay, from Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji
At the Edo Pop exhibition we also encountered contemporary responses to Mt. Fuji and the landscapes of Japan. In particular, we were captivated by Asako Narahashi‘s half asleep and half awake in the water series. We were struck by the description of her process, specifically that she will, “leave a hint of human presence or a sign of civilization in each composition … [and] that element breaks us away from being in timeless nature and jerks us back into the present moment…” Her depiction of waves is described as, literally, “nami makase (going with the flow) as I let the wave carry me in the ocean holding the camera just above the water … I was drawn to the image of water, probably for its incomprehensible and potentially violent nature. In other words, for me, water is a symbol of something uncontrollable.”
We find Narahashi’s process, one that is simultaneously intentional and happenstance, an inspired way to move with media (such as cameras) and with the forces that compose any given environment (both built and natural). During our week in Euphoria, we’ll be experimenting with developing creative responses, in the form of our own Thirty-Six Views of Euphoria, that can vibrantly image the particular configuration of our inhabition of the shack, and the surrounding landscape, possibly relaying into our longer-term project, entitled Till.
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Glacial till: the product of relentless grinding, pushing, pulverizing, mashing, sitting, sliding, waiting, flowing, advancing and retreating— repeating.
google map of Long Island and Cape Cod
Over the next several months we will document and creatively traverse the piles of glacial till that the Laurentide ice sheet left in its wake a couple thousand years ago. We’ll start in our own backyard, specifically between Brooklyn and the tip of Cape Cod. We have tentatively named the project Till.
If you look at a map of Long Island and look off the tip to the east, you’ll soon run into a small, curious place called Block Island. If you keep heading east/northeast from there, you encounter Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and wind up the arm of Cape Cod. This arc of islands and landscapes are the tilled glacial aftermath of the Pleistocene. We’re interested in stitching together these seemingly disparate landscapes and cultures by seeing them through their Pleistocene-inflected past.
We already started the project by tracing the terminal till while driving from Brooklyn eastward on the Long Island Expressway, which uses the spine of the Long Island moraine as its support. We took a short ferry ride to Shelter Island, a relatively small pile of glacier-plowed till tucked between Long Island’s north and south East End tips. You can take a three-minute time-lapse journey with us to Shelter Island and watch the Orient Point ferry disembark on Vimeo.
Shelter Island highlighted in red, “Geology of Long Island” map by Dr. J. Bret Bennington
This summer and fall we’ll extend our documentation to Block Island, and the Cape Cod and the Islands. Cape Cod’s Route 6 also follows the crest of a moraine up until things grind to a halt at the sandy tip of Provincetown.
We plan for Till to be hybrid journey, based both in fiction and in reality. We’re interested in exploring how the force and event-ness of the ice sheet, long retreated, lingers as a force that shapes daily life and senses of place today. Contemporary cultural and economic realities, such as the taste of North Fork wine and its emergence as a major activity on Long Island, is a direct result of the Pleistocene. In some ways, Till is similar to our 2010 project Below the Line, which required us to project our imaginations 20,000 years into the past as we scouted Utah for the present day traces of the once massive, but presently extinct, Lake Bonneville.
Till also links up with a forthcoming smudge project that will include places where geo-bio dynamics of the Pleistocene are less imaginary and more material, even today. Next spring we’ll be based in Oslo as guest researchers for a project called Future North. This provocative project is supported by the Norwegian Research Council and is managed by Making the Geologic Now contributor Janike Kampevold Larsen, and based at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Future North considers the changing environments of the deep north and will include excursions to locations such as Vardø, Svalbard, Murmansk and Tromsø.
Pleistocene ice once connected sites such as Long Island to the far northern regions of the planet. As the material traces of those connections recede further and further, new forces are set into motion by the emerging conditions of the Anthropocene. Through our work on Till and Future North, we will develop field-based projects that attempt to aesthetically respond to the rapidly changing environments of the north. We hope to develop aesthetic relays that invite audiences to experience what is near (i.e. “here,” New York/Cape Cod) and what seems far (i.e. “there,” the European/Scandinavian Arctic North) as being directly related by diverse and highly consequential material connections (past, present, and future).
The Weichselian ice sheet over Scandinavia, image wikicommons
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This past week, a number of FOP-worthy topics passed through our hands, feeds and email in-boxes. Here’s a sampling, selected for their creative or literal engagements with time, forces of change and design practices.
Whidbey Island, image Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
1) It’s likely that you’ve already heard about the recent landslide on Whidbey Island in Washington State. The equivalent of 40,000 dump-truck loads of earth suddenly went tumbling towards the Puget Sound (incredibly no one was injured). What’s most remarkable to us is that this “deep-seated” slide apparently had been unfolding in slow motion since 2002 — and is part of a “landscape complex” that dates to 11,000 years ago. It’s said that this longer than usual time frame made the eventual outcome oddly predictable, but not the exact moment that the slip would occur. The tale end of a several thousand year old event suddenly became visible through this landslide, and time became dramatically “material” and sensible.
2) Across the Pacific Ocean, Google Maps is taking on an overtly cultural project in its Street View documentation of the town of Namie, Japan. Namie exists within the mandated exclusion zone adjacent to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and it’s the first town inside the zone to be documented by Google. The mayor of Namie invited Google to tour the city with its 360-degree view camera, on behalf of the 21,000 evacuated residents. Now, they and other people around the world can see online what they can’t visit in person. Though the street views will be updated on occasion, they still leave those who know these streets best eerily locked outside, viewing their neighborhoods and homes from the street, through a view that is frozen, until the next Google car passes through. The interiors of familiar buildings and homes are left to imagination and memory, and there is no estimated timeline for when, if ever, residents will be able to return home. This week the President of TEPCO, Naomi Hirose, acknowledged the human-designed reality of the Fukushima accident, stating on record that, “We [TEPCO] need to sincerely accept the outcome that we were not able to prevent an accident that should have been prevented by making preparations.” Additionally, Yukihiro Higashi, an Iwaki Meisei University engineering professor who is on a government nuclear regulatory panel overseeing Fukushima Dai-ichi safety has said, “We learned that it only takes one rat, not even an earthquake or tsunami, to paralyze the plant.”
3) Last week we picked up a copy of recent Pritzker Prize winner Toyo Ito’s new book, published by Princeton Architectural Press, entitled Forces of Nature. We’ve been following Ito’s work closely after reading his remarkable “Postscript” to the 2011 book Project Japan: Metabolism Talks. We hoped the Forces of Nature would be a bold moving forward with the ideas Ito expressed in Project Japan. Such as,
“The media often uses the phrase ‘beyond assumption’ for the [Fukushima] 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 as a ‘complete machine,’ complying with nature defined in quantities or abstract definitions; we do not engage with the natural environment as something constantly affected by the varying forces of ground, sea, or wind.” – Toyo Ito from “Postscript” in Project Japan
But Forces of Nature’s primary focus appears to be documentation of Ito’s earlier works, and his 2009 public lecture at Princeton. The final pages of the book briefly reference Ito’s current work in Fukushima to design homes for evacuees and provide much needed communal spaces that lessen the stress of cramped and challenging shelter life. In an online search, we found this Domus article, which include an interview with Ito about his Home for All project.
* A supplementary reference for those interested (and for those who speak Japanese) is Sion Sono’s Land of Hope, available for viewing on Hulu.com for free. Land of Hope is credited as being the “world’s first fictional film about the 3/11-related nuclear power plant meltdown.”
Requiem for Fossil Fuels, viaO + A
4) For your listening pleasure, we recommend tuning in to “Requiem for Fossil Fuels,” recently re-featured on WNYC radio. The creators of the piece, Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, also known as O + A, say of their work, “There come times in life when the passing of great events requires formal acknowledgment to assist in their comprehension. As we face the passing of our fossil fuel dependent way of life, we hope to gain insight by examining the sounds of our culture through the lens of the Requiem Mass.”
5) It’s rare for us to recommend fiction on FOP. This might actually be the first time. But Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, A Tale for the Time Being strikes us as worthy. This book admirably traverses the blurry boundaries between reality and fiction, autobiography and imagination — making it all the more powerful. Ozeki’s characters (one based on a remote island in British Columbia and one based in Japan) are bound by potent connections set into motion by vast earth forces (ocean currents, earthquakes, tsunamis). We loved the ease with which Ozeki merges, and makes accessible, the vastness of both geologic time and Zen Buddhist notions of time. In full disclosure, we’re thrilled that Friends of the Pleistocene and Oliver Kellhammer’s compelling essay and project “NeoEocene,” included in Making the Geologic Now, are woven into the narrative threads of Ruth’s remarkable book.
6) Two bonus notes: The cicadas are coming—and it’s going to be noisy! It’s been 17 years since the last brood resurfaced in the New York region. Get your media ready. Finally, it seems that the 5.7 earthquake that occurred in central Oklahoma two years ago most likely resulted from the pumping of wastewater from oil production into deep wells. Read more on the NY Times online.
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This spring we’re undertaking a self-taught, crash-course in video editing. Over the past eight+ weeks, we transformed more than twenty hours of raw footage into a video that we’ll exhibit starting this fall. The exhibition will be relayed among five venues between 2013 and 2015.
The project, Look Only at the Movement, takes FOP/smudge in new directions. As many of you know, smudge projects have tended to be text-intensive (a deck of cards, a field guide, a book etc.). Look Only at the Movement is also backed by tall stacks of research, maps and documents. But this time we’re excited to be using video to turn those stacks into a time-based visual experience.
Mondays are designated video-editing days, and they’ve been like mini-vacations. There’s something enduringly seductive about reliving last September’s days of research travel across parched white salt flats and red rocks of Utah, into Colorado valleys and up New Mexico plateaus—while the Brooklyn winter unfolds outside the studio window.
As with earlier smudge projects, we hope audiences will sense there’s much to learn after viewing the new work. It offers up a journey along routes that nuclear waste shipments move in the United States. These familiar roads and interstates are the stage on which the story of this country’s nuclear waste will play out for the foreseeable future. The U.S. highway system is where materials shuffle, seemingly endlessly, between sites, with no permanent repository for the storage of high-level waste in sight.
It’s unlikely that the finished piece will be shorter than five hours. We draw durational inspiration from one of our heroes of film/video work on the American West—James Benning. Benning’s long, slow-moving films, such as 13 Lakes, are known to test viewers’ patience. But they are celebrated for expanding our capacities of observation and attention—valuable skills when it comes to the wicked problems of nuclear waste. In a September 2007 interview with ArtForum, Benning said: “The artist is someone who pays attention and reports back. A good artist pays close attention and knows how to report back.” With our current project, we hope that, following Benning, we’ll be able to “reinvigorate our perceptual capacities” and “model a more perceptually active sensual awareness of the world.”
In 2013, we’re sensing that it’s not just we (artists) who need to be reporting back, but non-humans of the world as well. In many ways, that’s what Benning’s films amount to. He sets up the camera and leaves the aperture open and undisturbed for remarkably long periods of time. While he and the camera stand still, much happens within and outside of the camera’s view. After ten minutes of “stillness,” we realize nothing is actually still at all. Clouds drift, wind stirs, guns fire in the distance, engines buzz. A lot has gone on all along, that we didn’t notice or have access to at first. We (FOP/smudge) wonder if we might be able to stage such an experience while our camera is in motion, and when we invite someone (something) other than humans to “report back”?
Leviathan, a film recently released by the MIT Sensory Ethnography Lab, documents action aboard a commercial fishing boat. In the filmmakers own words, Leviathan is “shot on a dozen cameras—tossed and tethered, passed from fisherman to filmmaker—it is a cosmic portrait of one of mankind’s oldest endeavors.” Leviathan uses a camera similar to the one we mounted on our car last fall for the production of Look Only at the Movement: tiny, high-resolution, affordable and durable. These cameras are designed for extreme sports enthusiasts. They can accompany you on your next surf or snow-boarding trip, or be sent aloft by kite, submerged in water, suction-cupped to vehicles in blazing heat and freezing temperatures, at speeds exceeding 90mph.
In Leviathan the cameras often move independently of human bodies or intentions. But, curiously, the “perspective” that the edited video offers us as its audience seems beholden to the human world of the boat and its narrow purpose (to catch and slaughter fish). Even as the camera floats amongst the fish, they have no apparent perspective as they are rendered into primarily inert, dead things. They are separated from their vast oceanic realms, cut into pieces, dematerialized into objects of consumption—seemingly without a second thought. The depiction of working within the U.S. commercial fishing industry is portrayed as a job without wonder or curiosity. It appears repetitive, strenuous and exhausting despite its intimate contact with the one place on Earth humans cannot fully know nor inhabit. We found ourselves waiting for the cameras to break free of their human-centric views and somehow acknowledge the continuum of interrelation that exists between human and nonhuman forces and beings. Would there be some way for them to dive into the teeming unknown beyond the confines of the boat and its single-minded purpose. The possibility of such a gesture and alter-perspective seemed hidden in plain sight, yet completely out of reach.
One of our most pleasant surprises this fall occurred during a moment of logging the footage for Look Only at the Movement. In footage of a Colorado highway, we spotted a truck transporting waste. We hadn’t seen the truck the day we passed it, despite doing our best to keep watch hour after hour. As was true throughout the film, at this moment, the camera was our third collaborator, open and recording what we saw—and what we did not. It was a humbling, literal reminder of how much exceeds our human capacities, attentions and abilities—at every moment.
One of our biggest challenges as artists is to galvanize new modes and forms of attention capable of making contact with and engaging nonhuman things whose worlds run concurrently with ours, but that escape us. There is much to learn, and unlearn, when moments of crossing paths and addressing one another occur. FOP/smudge is increasingly interested in inventing practices that invite such meetings, pay close attention as they unfold, and report back.
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We recently had the opportunity to experience Gutai: Splendid Playground, an exhibition currently on view at the Guggenheim. The show highlights the varied visionary practices of a collective of avant-garde Japanese artists called Gutai, lead by Yoshihara Jirō from 1952 to 1972. The exhibition is one of the first in-depth engagements with this important group staged in the United States.
Reproduced on one of walls of the Museum is the notable “Gutai Manifesto,” written in 1956. The manifesto includes remarkably timely insights, such as:
“If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something with a mighty voice.”
Or, materials have been “loaded with false significance by human hand and by way of fraud, so that, instead of just presenting their own material, they take on the appearance of something else. Under the cloak of intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us.”
And, that material assumes beauty “when it is freed from artificial make-up and reveals its original characteristics.”
After World War II, the Gutai artists turned away from making work that expressed human-centered stories. Instead of focusing on translating what humans thought and felt, they instead put energy into focusing on material in and of itself. It was time to pay more direct attention to paint as a substance, rocks as things, light as material, mud as texture and flow. Matter itself needed to be “heard,” felt, moved with, passed through and more directly experienced. Materials needed to be freed from being mere conduits for human stories and, instead, recognized as forces unto themselves. These realizations are likely an indecipherable combination of Japanese cultural tendencies to be aware of materiality in general. Such tendencies far pre-dated the War, but were likely compounded by experiences of being being deeply affected by the material impact and imprint of the atomic bomb (the “force of things,” at its most forceful).
To us, the Gutai aspirations have the ring of recent writings on the topic of vibrant materialism, along with other materialist philosophies now (re)gathering momentum in academe and art criticism. It’s worth noting that Japanese artists were exploring the notion that matter “tells a story and even cries out” and were having extended conversations about ways to “serve matter”—in the 195os. Many Westerners are just now getting our first in-depth engagement with material practices that engage these ideas. The effects of this lag are significant. It couldn’t be happening at a better time. We have arrived at a moment (some call it the Anthropocene event) when much is at stake as a result of how we will relate to the material world from here.
A lack of deeply cultivated or collectively operationalized awarenesses of the extent to which we are of and from the earth’s matter has most likely contributed to bringing us to this point. Now that we (Western-enculturated people) are finally opening up to the idea that the materials around us can impart important information and instructive sensations to us that we otherwise cannot know, our species might have a shot at a chance of navigating its uncertain futures.
Gutai’s particular take on vibrant materialism feels like a vital but missing piece of the discussions currently circulating about how the Anthropocene is taking shape. Many of those conversations refer back to or presume human-centered perspectives and scenarios. The Gutai collective looked to matter itself as a source of instruction about how to move and act in the world. What if, as artists today, we addressed matter as being able to communicate material realities and forces that are in the midst of emerging on the planet right now? What if we made this mode of address the hinge of our “art”? Perhaps it is time (once again) to deemphasize the “Anthro” in the word Anthropocene and instead initiate (over)due gestures-toward the potency and play of planetary materialities in and of themselves, while still acknowledging their inextricable connectedness with human bodies and assemblages.
For the past several weeks, we’ve been developing a statement to guide us in charting new directions for our practice in coming years. Seeing the Gutai exhibition was the boost we needed to articulate the following:
next five years
We sense that it is time to enact an updated “frame” for our work at smudge studio. This act of re-framing is perhaps more vital than any single new project.
For the next five years, our points of departure and sources of creative inspiration will be events of planetary change now being called the Anthropocene.
The focused duration of this frame signals our sense that during the next five years, humans will grasp the speed, scale, and material realities of planetary change events more concretely. Arguably, thoughts, dreams, actions and creative gestures that we humans make in response to our first inklings and shared experiences of Anthropocene events will set the stage for their potential consequences.
Yet, there is more to this frame than the human world. Anthropocene materiality “knows” something of great import to us humans about our planetary situation. We will realize this by paying attention to what the atmosphere, the glacier, the rock strata, the water table “do” in response to contemporary forces at play.
As we develop this frame as process, we will seek out sites and time where change events of the Anthropocene are unfolding with particular intensity, palpability and exquisiteness. We will use the immediacy of new digital media to slow down, pay deep attention, move-with, and make-from-within events and forces of change itself. We wager that a lively alter-world will catch us and gesture back. Much of what we need for this project will be learned and invented along the way.
We envision creating dynamic tracings of the Anthropocene’s arrival into widespread human + nonhuman cognizance. Works that result from next five years may take the form of multi-media dispatches. We step off with the intention to compose a collaborative, alter-human voice with multiple, moving points of view—while we live and make in the midst of the alter-beginning that is the next five years.
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We are thrilled to announce that as of TODAY, our co-edited collection of essays, Making the Geologic Now: Material Responses to Contemporary Life exists in PRINT.
The printed book is available for order directly from the punctum website for $39 + shipping. We’re very excited to have this third mode of distribution available for the project, in addition to the beautifully designed GEOLOGICNOW.COM and the free PDF download (released in December 2012).
Please help us celebrate the hard work of our incredible list of contributors and share the news (and link) widely. We’re happy to report that within the first two weeks of our digital launch we had more than 1000 downloads. And currently, we are #5 on punctum’s download list. Help us make it to #1.
In many ways, we are just getting started. All are welcome to build upon the existing project, join discussions regarding the book’s content and continue to make the geologic “now” via the “Sightings and Discussions” page on geologicnow.com.
As always, let us know what you think. And we hope you enjoy the book, and the selected page views below!
Contributors include: Matt Baker, Jarrod Beck, Stephen Becker, Brooke Belisle, Jane Bennett, David Benque, Canary Project (Susannah Sayler, Edward Morris), Center for Land Use Interpretation, Brian Davis, Seth Denizen, Anthony Easton, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Valeria Federighi, William L. Fox, David Gersten, Bill Gilbert, Oliver Goodhall, John Gordon, Ilana Halperin, Lisa Hirmer, Rob Holmes, Katie Holten, Jane Hutton, Julia Kagan, Wade Kavanaugh, Oliver Kellhammer, Elizabeth Kolbert, Janike Kampevold Larsen, Jamie Kruse, William Lamson, Tim Maly, Geoff Manaugh, Don McKay, Rachel McRae,Brett Milligan, Christian MilNeil, Laura Moriarity, Stephen Nguyen, Erika Osborne, Trevor Paglen, Anne Reeve, Chris Rose, Victoria Sambunaris, Paul Lloyd Sargent, Antonio Stoppani, Rachel Sussman, Shimpei Takeda, Chris Taylor, Ryan Thompson, Etienne Turpin, Nicola Twilley, Bryan M. Wilson.
Lisa Hirmer’s images accompany Etienne Turpin + Valeria Federighi’s piece (Chapter 2)
from Janike Larsen’s essay (Chapter 11)
from the Canary Project’s photo essay (Chapter 20)
from Katie Holten’s essay ((Chapter 31)
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still from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011
Two boys. Each spinning a film reel through the streets of Kabul. One reel red, the other blue. Constant rolling.
A thirty-something woman on stage. Inside a Brooklyn warehouse. She’s just returned from a three-week boat trip to the Arctic and she wants to sing a song to you about what she saw, what she learned, what’s coming. And about what is never coming back.
As the speed and scale of change on our planet continue to increase, artists continue to dislocate themselves and site their work where change can be seen more clearly. They seem compelled to act as harbingers. Perhaps they are sensing a narrowing window of time when acts of creative making in response can be joyful, playful, or contemplative–before they must turn urgently reactive (or reactionary).
As recent headlines beamed news of a meteor exploding over Russia reportedly injuring hundreds, an asteroid on near collision course with the Earth, Beijing air quality running amok, and the arrival of the largest blizzard in a century, we visited several galleries and theaters in New York, where we steadied our senses and experienced some of the works that are addressing the “right now.” Two standout highlights: Francis Alÿs’ Reel – Unreel at David Zwirner and Cynthia Hopkins’ This Clement World at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
still from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011
From the second row of This Clement World, we were drawn in to Hopkins’ depth of commitment to the complex issue of climate change. Her multi-media approach employed edited footage (both film and digital video), folk singing, a back-up band + vocals, drag and science. All of this was created in response to a three-week, 2010 expedition to the Arctic, as a part of the Cape Farewell project. It’s obvious she took the journey seriously as an opportunity to challenge her established approaches to her autobiographically-inflected work. She succeeded. In just over 70 minutes, Hopkins translated her personal experiences into something an audience of strangers could enjoy as creative process.
Twenty-one other artists, scientists and activists (plus the voyage’s Captain Ted) accompanied Hopkins on the 100-year-old schooner named the Noorderlicht. The performance included curated transcripts of interviews Hopkins conducted with her travel companions to illustrate reasons they also felt compelled to visit this melting landscape.
At times, the production accounted details of Hopkins’ personal journey, told through asides (at one point she wonders out loud if our species’ addiction to fossil fuels might parallel her own previous addictions to drugs and alcohol). Yet, the tale she spins seeks relevance to everyone inhabiting Earth right now. It’s a rare New York theater experience to have climate science statistics become part of the performance, or to be told by a bright-eyed young woman that the “age of innocence” is over.
Hopkins also told her audience that it’s an opportunity to be alive today, within this window of “clemency” that is fast transforming. She’s right. We are lucky to be alive during this sweet, short (anomalous, actually) span of clement planetary weather (both geologic and meteorologic). She’s also right about the speed at which it’s changing.
Cynthia’s message was direct and focused. Imaginary characters from the past and future delivered warnings about planetary realities that many of us already know. Heavy doses of activism + art often run the risk of losing potential audiences before they have the chance to experience what challenges them most. When the message is so direct, we miss the chance to experience something we think is so familiar to us in new or surprising ways. Or, we risk feeling that what we already know is simply being confirmed, when, actually, it’s a different story or way of being with these realities that we most urgently need. As with many activist messages delivered to audiences who haven’t directly experienced the situation in question, it’s often hard to hold on to a sense of urgency, and once home, it’s easy to feel at a loss for what “to do” in the face of something so big and far away.
Just down the block from St. Ann’s, at Smack Mellon, Janet Biggs’ installation, Somewhere Beyond Nowhere, also presents a response to a boat trip to the Arctic in 2010. Seeing it in juxtaposition to This Clement World, we were struck by how Biggs’ Arctic felt unmarked by any sense of change registered at either personal or planetary levels.
Francis Alÿs’ Reel – Unreel, commissioned for dOCUMENTA (13), recently closed at David Zwirner gallery. But the video piece, which is the core of the endeavor, is free to watch on the artist’s website. Seen during the same week that we attended This Clement World, we experienced Reel–Unreel as leaving “the state of things” infinitely more unfinished than This Clement World, while at the same time sharing some of the sensibilities that were the heart of Hopkins’ performance.
Two boys. Two film reels. One reel red, the other blue. The streets of Kabul. Not far into the video we realize the reels are connected by a single strip of continuously moving film. One reel unwinds, the other winds. The ancient city looks incredibly resilient, yet crumbling. It’s ambiguous, like most everything in the film: is what we see falling apart, or is it, in fact, endlessly enduring? Is it war, material, or time that will abide here? No answers are offered.
Helicopters cut through distant, dusty skies. The film reels roll on. At times, crowds of children join in what has quickly become an enchanted and remarkably focused game of chase. Daily life in Kabul becomes the backdrop: donkeys, goats, vehicles, children, marketplaces, crowded streets. Adults cast quick glances towards the movement, but largely ignore the reels whirling past. Through bustling markets, across red carpets, down dirt roads, through traffic-jams, and past crumbling buildings, the serpentine filmstrip slithers, notably resilient. Though the reels falter, spin out of control, tip and bang down stone steps, over and over the game is picked up again. The two boys are bound in loose, but constant, relation throughout the “game” by the literal materiality of the strip of film that runs between them, and by frame of the film that we are watching. The soundtrack to the work is the hollow sound of metal bumping over pebbled dirt, often accompanied by rhythms of breathing, traffic, helicopters, voices, radio, animals.
still from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011
After what feels like an immense distance has been traversed by the boys and the reels, a small debris fire on the roadside burns the filmstrip in two. The red reel gains speed, then soars off of a nearby cliff. Game over. One of the boys re-spools what remains onto the blue reel.
In 2001, the Taliban created an enormous fire on the outskirts of Kabul by burning thousands of films from the Afghan Film Archive. The films were thought to be original negatives, but in fact, they were copies. It is said that the conflagration lasted fifteen days. With this bit of history folded into the video’s closing titles, the free movement of the filmstrip across Kabul, and the watching of Reel–Unreel itself, become all the more poignant
Paying attention to change, being there for the change, enacting new gestures of movement and perhaps meaning in response to it, and going to its edges: these are fast becoming potent practices for conveying senses of the change we are facing planet-wide. In Reel–Unreel, movement itself speaks in ways that cross and reconfigure polarized issues. It can also assist us in loosening our tight grips that attempt to “capture” the “Reality” of our situation.
Navigating the beautiful and highly charged landscapes of Kabul or the Arctic (and countless other places), contemporary artists find themselves located within shifting terrains of uncertainty. The realization that there is no “outside” perspective that allows a full picture or complete understanding results in works that can be endlessly challenging–and potentially more pleasurable. We already have been swept up into the movement that is massive planetary change. This movement is fast becoming the daily reality of life, and it is quickly becoming more and more like “home.” Inhabiting the movement, we become invested by losing bits of ourselves to the unfolding change, and what we cannot know of it. From within the movement, we realize that the activist question of “what do we do next or in response?” gives way under the fact that we are already doing, responding, and arriving at the next. Reel–Unreel gestures toward other ways to inhabit and make from within the movement, while on the way.