From Trinity to Hiroshima and Beyond (APG group exhibition)
10.05.2015, 10:10 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


From October 6-16, 2015, the Atomic Photographers Guild will stage an exhibition at the Old Bank of Japan, Hiroshima Branch.  The building survived the atomic bombing in 1945 and is presently the site of an Arts Center.

We’re very pleased to have our work included in the exhibition, which includes a selection of work by Guild photographers from the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia and Japan. The exhibition addresses a variety of subjects ranging from nuclear facilities to Hibakusha. The exhibition also highlights 40 works from Patrick Nagatani’s Nuclear Enchantment project.

There are several other events and special projects associated with the exhibition, including a slide show projected on a screen made of recycled paper peace cranes.  In addition, a project entitled, “Trinity Site Monument @ Hiroshima 2015,” invites visitors to the exhibition to take part in erecting a monument. More information can be found on the Atomic Photographers Guild website.

09.24.2015, 8:46 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


In 2013, Roy Scranton published a piece in the The New York Times’ philosophy blog The Stone, titled “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” It is now a chapter in his new book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization, just published by City Lights.

We talked with Roy about his book and about how, for him, writing it became a practice of living the Anthropocene.

​Roy will be reading at Bluestockings in New York on October 5th, with philosopher Dale Jamieson and novelist Bonnie Nadzam, at the Climate Week NYC book event, “Love and Death in the Anthropocene.”


all photos this post: FOP 2015


SMUDGE STUDIO (SS): We at FOP/smudge studio are interested in daily practices that aid humans in meaningfully navigating the Anthropocene. In the New York Times piece, you describe how the Hagakure and the meditation practices it offers resonated so strongly with you while you were deployed in Iraq. Are you still using the Hagakure and meditation in your daily life now, three years later?

ROY SCRANTON (RS): In Iraq, what I found most useful about the Hagakure was the practice of imagining oneself as dead, imagining that vividly, and in various ways. It’s a practice that involves lingering, possibly morbidly, over the reality of how one could die in order to get used to that reality and get familiar with it — and sort of take charge of it.

Rather than thinking about dying as I was driving around in the Humvee in Bagdad and having those intrusive thoughts throughout the day, I made a space for when I would deal with the questions of mortality. Then I would go on with my work being an occupier.

This has remained an intentional practice — the meditative aspect. And this has remained important in thinking about climate change in the Anthropocene because there’s so much incoming information. You receive these messages that are out there circulating — and I do it myself— Facebook, twitter etc.: typhoons in Japan, crazy weather in Europe, floods or extinction. If you have news alerts like I do, it will hit you as often as you want. Even if you don’t have the alerts, this news will come in regularly, and not just about the weather because we live in a time of constant spectacle, noise and the realities of things like famine, drought, climate-driven wars and climate refugees. If you don’t tune it out, it is going to hit you again and again. It’s very similar to the intrusive thoughts I would have driving around Bagdad.

How do we deal with this constant noise of danger and the constant compulsion to turn away from whatever is important to us? We often turn away from our relationships and work, and worry about things that might be thousands of miles away. They might also be next door.  But we worry about them in ways that don’t give us any power to do anything about them.


So, as a practice of dealing with this, I’ve done the same thing as I did with the Hagukure while I was in Iraq. I’ve set aside a time and space to think about such events. I did with this while working on the book. As I wrote, I was spending time with the ideas of rising seas washing out lower Manhattan, glaciers melting and all the many things that will follow on from this. I’ve given them specific space in my life — time to accept the realities. This set-aside time has opened up more possibilities, more senses of freedom and more access to energy and power during the rest of life — which are essential to this moment of radical global change that we’re living through.

We’re facing the end of this civilization — the end of a way of life and global capitalism. The way we’ve structured and organized our lives around the production and consumption of carbon?  This is over and done with. Collectively and individually we need to figure out new ways of doing things and we’re not going to be able to do that as long as we’re clinging desperately to the old ways of doing things. We really need to let this civilization die.


SS (Jamie): Yes, it seems we need grounded ways of being with these changes that don’t induce emotional breakdowns and identity crises. It often feels as though the reason many people can’t accept the realities of the Anthropocene is because we have so few non-apocalyptic ways to be with these realities. We don’t have nuanced understandings of something like “the end of civilization.” We need ways to integrate Anthropocene realities into our lives without being destroyed by the thought of them — but also without denying the reality of what you describe. We need to be able to accept the sixth extinction, but there’s a lot of grief in letting that be real too.

RS: At times, the overwhelming scale of our predicament seems beyond any capacity to comprehend, much less come to terms with. There’s just no way. But the world has always been endangered.

We have about 5000 years of records of people trying to think through, and worrying about, what it means to die. I think for concerned people, that’s one of the key things we need to be attending to:  to revisit the global cultural heritage, whether it’s the Bhagavad Gita or Plato, or something else entirely. Bringing these ideas together and putting them into discussion can help us work through this moment of vast change and death. It will also help carry through some of the wisdom that we as a species have accumulated into the next pattern of civilization.

SS (Liz):  David Collings (Stolen Future, Broken Present: The Human Significance of Climate Change) writes about the fundamental difference of this “ending” that we’re now in compared to other endings of previous civilizations. He writes about what happens when we can no longer use the notion of the “future” to justify and motivate our personal life choices. We predicate so many of our actions on imagining a future for ourselves or the next generation: “I’m doing this because it will make a better future,” etc. What we’re up against now, Collings says, is the loss of that futurity. And this is fundamentally different from what other humans had to imagine in the past when, say, their civilization was dying but they had no reason to doubt that the human species or the human habitat would continue on.

Do you see learning to die in the Anthropocene as a different kind of learning how to die, because this time, it might involve the end not only of a civilization, but of our species? Might learning to die in the Anthropocene be primarily about alleviating suffering in the dying — rather than setting up a new way of being for people of the future?


RS:  There’s a lot to say there. And the first thing I would want to say is, yes, you’re right. And I think it is about learning to die as a form of palliative care.

SS (Liz): So, we’re all in hospice now.

RS: Yes, I think that’s right, but at the same time: two things. One, we don’t know what the future holds. This civilization will probably die, most likely. But the species probably will live on, even if in a much-reduced way. The land around the Arctic sea will probably be lovely. So, assuming that the methane belch doesn’t happen and we really are cooked, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen.


In the relative short-term, like in the next 100,000 years, whether we as a species survive or not I don’t know. Once you start to zoom out, the sun’s going to explode and collapse anyway. At a certain point, we’re just mosquitoes in the summer puddle. We live, the puddle dries up, and we die. That’s just what happens in the universe. So at a certain scale, we’ve always—or at least since we’ve considered the problem in that way—we’ve been telling ourselves stories about the end of this world. It’s part of why we make up fantasies of other worlds. There’s a way in which such stories are a kind of palliative care similar to what we need to be doing now. Which is to just say, in stepping back: it’s different but it’s also the same.


SS (Liz): When we do say there’s something radically or fundamentally different about the Anthropocene compared to other endings of civilizations, it seems that we’re just re-inscribing the whole problem. It’s as if we’re saying: what’s happening now is really different from other kinds of endings — individual or collective. What’s happening now is REALLY an ending when, as you just said, humans have been addressing impermanence and mortality for a very long time. The scales of change and species loss might be far greater, but saying that the Anthropocene is radically different from the ever-present impermanence of all things risks removing the obligation, and the responsibility, to treat everything that exists (and is in the process of passing on) in a palliative way.

RS: Part of the radical nature of the Anthropocene is in its challenge to — I’m reluctant to use “Western” or “modern” but it is “modern and it is “Western” — its challenge to the teleological progressive notion of history. I mean the version that says we’re headed toward a technological utopia of some kind and we’re currently just working out the details until “death shall hold no dominion.” That’s a fantasy that was fueled by cheap energy, carbon, coal, oil and insane technological development in the 19th century. It’s an understandable hubris. We made atomic bombs and we flew to the moon. But that fantasy and hubris is not what we need now. There are older traditions, older ways of thinking about being human that understand that we are part of cycles and part of a bigger process. It is this perspective that we need to get back to in many ways.


SS (Jamie): People struggle with feeling that their lives are relevant within a geo/cosmological timeframe. Many respond to the news that our sun will eventually, and inevitably, become a red dwarf as a reduction of meaning — as an: “Oh, this all doesn’t matter then because we’re all going to die anyway.” But this perspective forgets that the planet existed for billions of years without humans — and also that we managed to evolve out of this vast and incredible history.

The species average lifespan for mammals is typically one million years, and yet we humans are miraculously still here now, seemingly against the odds. I feel that the geo/cosmo timescale can offer us a chance to experience wonder at the fact that we actually exist at all. And that wonder offers a lot of meaning.

SS (Liz): There are so few invitations to be with these realities in ways that don’t tip into apocalyptic, catastrophic narratives or exceptionalisms.


SS (Jamie): Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History invites us into nuanced and very specific understandings of the species that are currently going extinct. Readers have a chance to get to know these species rather intimately and to comprehend what we’re actually losing — as opposed to just saying, “all species go extinct eventually, so there’s no need to dwell on the details.”

Maybe this is where the notion of “practice” comes in? We’re passing out of being right now. As you wrote in the Times piece, the question is:  how do we meet that reality? How we actually inhabit this passing away and make it real in our daily life practices — and not just when it’s convenient for us — is crucial. There isn’t a lot of support for asking these sorts of questions in American culture right now. Learning to die in the Anthropocene is not about just reading the New York Times, following the news or “being aware.” It seems that we actually need to disengage from the overstimulation to learn what daily practices in a dying civilization might be. The distractions and preoccupations of our emotional states are probably a big part of why we haven’t been able to accept what’s happening.


RS: The thing about practices is you have to practice them. Crises are great for provoking reactions and creating possibilities for insight, but practice is practice.

In Iraq, thinking about the different ways that this civilization would fall apart amounted to a practice of attending to one’s own death — or the death of one’s self in a wider sense.

I think that’s important to think about, especially when the moment of death or ideas of death, finitude or mortality become frightening, oppressive and burdensome. That’s when I think it’s important to spend more time with such thoughts in order to get more comfortable with them and discover new ways to relate to them.

I also like what you said about Kolbert’s book. I think part of what she’s doing there is attending to the dead. That’s a practice that I think we’ve really gotten out of touch with in contemporary culture. We have no time for the dead, or very little. I think having that time is important for so many reasons: for connecting us back to cycles of life and death, for connecting us back to the wisdom of the dead and the things they learned. It helps us to put our own lives in perspective. It helps us to come to terms with our own mortality and preserves a sense of continuity even if there is no future. I think we definitely need this.


One of the practices I very much advocate for, which seems really important, is attending to the dead. Spending time with the things that are lost. While it’s not going to save us or recuperate the dead, by attending to what has been lost and those that have been lost, we remember them. You can’t help but slow down and see what you’re doing today in a slightly different perspective. That seems really important.

SS (Jamie): Are there writers or artists that fuel this particular way of thinking for you?

RS:  That’s a fair question. I’m somewhat reluctant to answer it though. I feel resistance to offering a “syllabus” or reading list, because I don’t want to limit it. I could say three or four things, but there are dozens.

Also, the things that are resonating with me in my particular journey and moment may help other people and may not. I spend a lot of time thinking about Iraq, trying to read Iraqi writers and old Abbasid poets. And I listen to contemporary Iraqi-American heavy metal band, Acrassicauda — their new album is Gilgamesh.

So those are some things. Sitting meditation is another thing I always go back to.

But I do have one answer. I always go back to Spinoza. I think if the oceans are rising and the house is on fire and I can take one book with me it would be Spinoza’s Ethics.

I want to keep learning and finding more and also going back to things that moved me ages ago. I want to re-read the Hagakure or revisit the Veda or look at the Egyptian Book of the Dead. There’s so much stuff.


SS (Jamie): Yes, I think it’s interesting how the same book or artist can resonate differently at different points in history. There is a lot worth revisiting today. Is there anything you’d like to say about the role of art and the humanities at this particular moment in the Anthropocene?

RS: The humanities is a vast category. Broadly, it’s thinking about what it means to be human. I say this in the New York Times piece.  We need to think about what it means to be human because our systems of meaning-making, particularly around capitalism, and the way that we value our labor and our lives, are not sustainable. We really need to do some innovative thinking and do some old, recuperative thinking about how we make meaning.

This is a fundamental question for me regarding the humanities. And in a certain way, one of the fundamental questions of an art practice. I was just looking at something William Burroughs said: “one of the things art does is to tell us what we didn’t know we already knew.”

And I think that’s right. Art does lots of things.  It can articulate things that we’re living in and with but haven’t yet given shape to. I think that’s one of the important uses of art today.


Another important use of art is to massage contradictions or anxieties and make them more bearable. I think that is important now, but maybe less important — it’s part of the palliative care.

We need to confront the contradictions and anxieties that the Anthropocene raises a little more directly ourselves. The humanities are important for helping us move through these changes (and this is just my values) in ways that might be kinder, more compassionate, and in a way that might help us adapt better than either simply trying to fix things technologically or economically.

Perhaps my biggest concern is the potential for a sort of descent that I talk about in the book — the compulsion to strife and the threat of reactive violence. Humans are really prone to using violence as a solution in moments of intense scarcity and stress.

So though I don’t think the humanities are going to save us — there’s nothing that can save us — they can help.


SS (Jamie): Your book has a very provocative title. Is there anything you’d like to say about what you’re inviting readers to consider through this book?

RS: I think of the book as a practice, as an exercise. For a long time I didn’t pay much attention to global warming. It was just there, this thing in the background. Then in the summer of 2013 I had a chance to attend an event at Cornell University focused on the Anthropocene. I didn’t know what that was and I was curious about it.

That summer was the impetus for the essay I wrote for the New York Times. I read up on the situation and soon realized things were much worse that I thought, much more dire, much closer on the horizon. I didn’t know how to deal with it and didn’t know what to do. I had been in the army, and gotten out of the army, and went to grad school and went to more grad school. I come from a working class family, and here, after crawling my way up the socioeconomic ladder a few rungs to have a nice quiet life teaching poetry, I realized: shit, the world’s going to end. Wait a minute, that wasn’t the deal!

I had to make sense of it for myself and the book is that process. The book is not for people who think there’s no such thing as climate change or that humans aren’t causing it. The book is for people who are worried. It’s for people who see what’s happening and live with the anxiety of that. It’s for people who think they need to do something, or they don’t know what to do, or they’re overwhelmed by it. The book is for my fellow travelers on this sinking ship who have noticed that it’s sinking.

What I hope it offers is a way to think about and make peace with these changes — a way to accept the changes in a way that releases them from being a burden.


It’s more than the probability that the end is upon us. It’s about a sense of connection to bigger cycles, a bigger circuit, a bigger universe. It’s more than: “I’m living in 2015 and there’s going to be a tsunami or there’s going to be a drought and I’m going to die.” It’s not just: “I lived and I died.” There’s something bigger than “America lived and died.” There’s something bigger than “humanity lived and died.”

I think that connecting thinking to a sense of the universe and to an understanding of ourselves in the universe — this is where I come back to Spinoza — offers not only a sense of peace but also a sense of power and a sense of fulfillment. You realize that you’re not going to hit your “premature end,” you’re going to hit your “correct end,” because everything is already done and it’s already there and full. We’re all part of it together because it’s all of a piece with the universe.

People may say this is quietism. And people may say this is giving up. And people may say this is accepting what is unacceptable. And there’s justice in those charges. But at the same time, it’s a way of thinking about, understanding, and living with a situation beyond our power that can help us move within that situation. It can help us live in that situation with more compassion toward each other and with more compassion toward ourselves — and with more freedom — because if we accept it, that opens up other possibilities for how to deal with it.

And you know, it’s one book. I’m offering it as one way of thinking. Maybe it’s good for you three days a week. Or one day a week. Or one day in one year in one lifetime. In a certain way, it’s me trying to offer others what I found in Spinoza or in the Hagakure in Iraq in that confrontation with the idea of my own mortality. It’s me trying to offer others that sense of peace, acceptance and freedom.  


SS (Liz): I appreciate what you’re saying. It’s making me think about two things I’d like to share back.  Having done some work in the 80s and 90s in Holocaust Studies, I’m wondering if there are some parallels between how you’re thinking about the present moment and how, within the concentration camps, there was often absolutely no hope whatsoever of escape.

So then, how one lives each single moment unfolding in a death camp is of utmost importance and full of meaning. If you have enough health and wherewithal to perform an act of kindness in this very moment, it’s as if all of time past and future compresses down into that single act. You might die in the next few seconds, but that act of kindness, despite everything else going on, seems to resonate far beyond itself. All of time seems to gather itself into each such moment and each such act.


The second idea I’d like to share is inspired by David Collings’ account of his profound sense of loss — of nearly losing his moorings as a philosopher — once he could no longer envision a future to work toward or work for.  With no hope of a “future,” it’s as if time becomes nothing more and nothing less than this moment, this moment, this moment.  This very moment becomes palpable as being “all the time there is.” To re-member the dead means you’re bringing them into this moment not “from the past” and not even “for the future,” but for what that act of re-membering does to the quality of the lived experience for this very singular moment.

It’s as if, when there is no future, the time frame of ethical action shifts.  And so does the time frame of emotions such as hope — because both hope and ethical action seem to require a future-oriented perspective.

What if we squeezed the future orientations of ethical action and “hope” down and compressed them into this concentration (camp) of the space/time of the Anthropocene present? What if we start thinking and acting according to something like: “the act of kindness performed in this singular moment has implications and scope far far beyond here and now — and, at the same time, there’s nothing other than this”? I think something like this might be what many deep indigenous practices and Zen practitioners have been offering humans for a long time.

Hearing you speak today has helped me think about these two things in new ways.


RS: Yes, I like that. I like the sense of bringing cosmic reverberations into the now, but also that it’s really coming back to the moment of now.

SS (Jamie): On March 11, 2013, on the two-year anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima accident, we wrote a blog post that we called “Next 5 years” to express our sense that within five years, as Anthropocene forces and events intensified, broader audiences would have increased awareness of what’s unfolding planetarily. It seems as though this awareness is growing now mostly because people, on a global scale, are experiencing strange local weather. But, what’s your sense of the more thoughtful conversations that might be resulting? Do you feel there has been a shift in awareness of the Anthropocene since you went to the Cornell conference in 2013?


RS: I think a lot of people are concerned and I think there is a wider awareness. At a certain level, I think there is also a deeper and more active anxiety. I think about conversations I have with people and I think the awareness and anxiety seem to come in waves. It seems there’s been an increased intensity of awareness and an increased concern that it’s too late and this does not have a happy ending. It does seem that more and more people are understanding this.

SS (Jamie): Yes, the release of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report this past September might have been a big part of generating that broader awareness. The news that we’re no longer stopping global warming, and that all we can do is adapt from here on — adaptation instead of mitigation — was a big reality check for many people.


RS: I don’t know what that means for the hive mind. That news might be filtered out. I do think it goes in phases. There have been moments … if you look back there was this moment in the 70s of intense awareness of the problem with oil.

SS (Liz): All of it was known then.

RS:  Yes. You go back and watch Soylent Green and it’s all there. And then, we’re like “never mind, we’re going to do Reagan.” That happened, and then the awareness comes back again with Al Gore briefly. And it’s coming back again hard now.

Now I wonder, will it last? Will we go through another period of denial and then sort of forget again? Will we have backlash? Go in another direction? Will the anxiety push or drive the U.S. to another invasion? I don’t know. As a species, we don’t really behave well in large groups so I’m not really very hopeful about it. But, it does seem to be a moment now where there’s an increased awareness of sort of how fucked we are.


SS (Liz): I find myself walking around daily, seeing everything through this frame, and it seems jaw dropping that people and events are still oblivious. I was wondering whether you see the world through this frame all the time? Does your practice lead you to feel something other than amazement at how oblivious so many humans seem to be?

RS: It’s hard to live with all the time. My partner finds it a drag. That’s part of why I try to make it a practice to actively think about it, so that at other times I can put it down. I can’t wash it out of my life or my perception, but there is a difference, especially when I was really focusing on writing the book. Everywhere I went was like some science fiction movie or that Charlie Kaufman film where you’re walking around and watching the buildings crumbling around you. You think things like: “this might be the last … this is the last X”. That’s powerful. And it’s heavy. And it does the thing you mentioned, where you’re sort of agape that other people just go about their lives. And sort of agape that one’s self goes on: Why am I getting up in the morning? Why bother going to the gym today?

There’s a way in which that kind of intense awareness all the time can be debilitating. It can also disconnect us from each other. Maybe that’s why I think there’s value in being intentional with the awareness and having periods of time with the focus.


This is part of why we have practices around death and remembering. We have these practices so that we can carry them around with us in this moment, but we also can function and take care of each other. I think it’s important to have a more intentional relationship around how we practice being aware of the Anthropocene. I’m not saying to not think about it, but that we should think about it in a focused way and maybe even ritualistically. Let’s figure out how to have an “Anthropocene Day” or go to church or synagogue or Zendo. Or all of us just come together and have a moment of spirituality connecting to the wider world that’s dying, and dying, and dying. And then, you go and live it.

SS (Liz): It seems that this awareness of the ending of our civilization could tap into the narcissistic aspects of culture in the United States. It could be a way of seeing the Anthropocene as being “all about me,” “all about us (humans),” and just feed narcissistic self-absorption. There are people who are now using the Anthropocene to do just that. I think there’s a real danger in this.  U.S. culture is already set up for denial and flipping the Anthropocene into some welcome, fundamentalist religious fulfillment of prophesies about the end times. I think there is a real potential for that in the United States, for the narcissistic side of the New Age to get triggered by an awareness that this civilization is ending.

RS: And to be one of the select few who know that this is urgent.

SS (Liz): And that somehow, “I’m better than you because I’m aware of it” or “I know more about it than you do, so therefore I’m somehow more enlightened …”

RS: For me, however, I can turn it into trying to be more patient and more compassionate and more open, because what else? We’re all going to die anyway.

SS (Jamie): Yes, there’s the question of how do you want to be with this? Do you really want to be shouting at people about how you knew this was coming? In the end, it’s how you fill your hours and practice your life. It seems crazy to be taking so much for granted, like having another precious day against the odds, for example. To enact a gesture of gratitude or awareness yourself first — instead of telling other people they should do that — that’s much harder than talking about it.

SS (Liz): I think the idea of there maybe being a wildcard is really interesting. I’m curious about that. You said it earlier: we just don’t know the end. There may be a wildcard in the climate change models or in human cultural practices that will get played and send all of our imagined futures off into new directions. I don’t see the wildcard as another version of “hope.” But I do see it as something that is humbling. Every time I hear myself saying to someone: “Really? Don’t you realize that this is going to happen and that’s going to happen, and this is happening right now?” – I think: “Wait a minute; I’m talking as if I really know what’s going to happen.” There are wildcards everywhere. That’s the complexity of the universe. That’s a powerful thing to meditate on too. What might the wildcards be? Again, not as a way of grasping at straws of hope, but because of the deeper humility that it fosters somehow.


RSI know what you mean. And that’s neither grasping at straws of hope nor letting it turn into even more terrifying possibilities. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a hard space to inhabit, especially because it’s so close. People want to deny it or brush it off, but we don’t actually know. We really don’t.

Long Life Design: D&Department Kyoto
09.04.2015, 8:28 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

IMG_5432kombu seaweed produced by one company for 110 years, available at the long life design store, Kyoto, Japan

The Anthropocene invites us to take a look around — what’s here? How much longer might the objects that we use everyday continue to be available? The foods we eat frequently? Our ability to travel with such ease? All these affordances? Suddenly, there’s a lot less certainty surrounding their longevity in our lives.

The Anthropocene also invites to stop and consider how we arrived at a mind-set where we actually imagined all this consumption and accumulation could last? Humans have been incredibly busy over the past 70 years, building, expanding and traveling. What kind of narratives had to be told (and material realities ignored) to make us think that the trajectory we’ve been on could continue indefinitely?

For FOP, one outcome of our humble attempts to “live the Anthropocene” has been to slow down and take a closer look at objects we regularly come into contact with in daily life. The basic stuff, like food, dishes, what’s in our apartment, etc. How do we interact with these things?  Nearly every object we touch, whether we pick it up at a 99 cent store or a high-end design studio, requires massive amounts of energy, resources and labor to exist. All objects are actually a bit like gold when you consider their links to the systems of global flows that make up the Anthropocene: extraction, production, emissions, packaging, waste, shipping, labor, etc.

Objects and materials we live with are mediums of incredible meaning. As we were recently reminded by curators in Hiroshima, objects are direct shapers of human life.  They inform our experiences of the world and how we assemble together to interact with each other and the world. Some objects actually help us slow down and connect. Some assist us with work or survival. And they can entertain and distract us.

As we started looking more closely at the collection of drinking cups in our apartment, we also started thinking about how long (or incredibly short) we keep things in our lives. How might we treat things differently, for example, if we actually couldn’t, or were suddenly no longer interested to, buy a replacement the second one broke or went out of fashion? Could one outcome of the Anthropocene be that more and more of us in consumer cultures will no longer expect new objects to be available, or decide that maybe at this point in planetary history, we simply have enough?

This summer, FOP encountered an inspiring practice related to these thoughts at the Bukko-ji temple on a Kyoto side street.


A ten minute walk south from Kyoto’s bustling Nishiki market within a maze of small rise buildings and tangles of powerlines sits Bukko-ji. Bukko-ji was founded in 1212 as a thatched hut by the monk Shinran. This temple, one of the 1,600 that can be found in Kyoto, opened a design store last year called D&Department Kyoto. It’s the local home for “long life design.”


Long life design is a concept developed by designer Kenmei Nagaoka. The Long Life Design store in Kyoto, named D&Department Kyoto, is the result of a three way collaboration among Nagaoka, Bukko-ji temple and the Kyoto University of Art and Design. Here, you can purchase designs of objects that have been produced by generations for decades, sometimes for over a century. All items have been carefully curated to endure.

“‘Long life design’ literally means a design which life will last for long time, or in other words, a universal design that will not die out according to the times or be affected by trends. Just like other previous stores, D&Department Kyoto will carry items selected from all over Japan without limitations on age, brand, whether it’s new or used, reconsidering functionality and design of the object itself. The 99 square meter wagosho building inside Honzan Bukko-ji temple was renovated for the shop with more than 400 items including food products and publications, making this shop a department store of long life design. The shop will explore and introduce traditional art and crafts, local industries and local long life designs, while inviting artisans and artists for workshops and talk events to re-discover the uniqueness of Kyoto and to spread its appeal. There will be a gallery and space for Kyoto tourist information, making it more than just a store but a place where various design movements are seen. Formally a tearoom used for morning sermons and as a local community space, at “d Dining”, visitors can enjoy Japanese dishes cooked with local seasonal ingredients or Japanese tea and coffee. Other food events will be planned to make this a space where people can interact through food.

The entire process of establishing the store, from negotiation with selected manufacturers and shop set up, planning and gallery event organizing, was carried out by the students. In August, a study group was held to consider “an easy-to-understand Temple.”  It invited a priest from Bukko-ji templ to reconsider the significance of opening a shop inside a temple. This is the first time that a “temple” and a “university” have cooperated to run a commercial project with the mission of attracting attention to the diversity of cultural practices across Japan’s distinct regional areas through design. The project is gaining attention as a new model for design education and for a new way to evaluate objects through the transformation of religious establishments for the future.”

– Kyoto University of Art 


As the founder, Nagaoka has written:

“All long-lasting things have an essential core.

We created this place so that everyone could take the time to consider “long-lasting things.” By everyone, I mean our customers, staff and manufacturers of the products we sell. At their core, all long-lasting things have something  that we value in our lives. It’s nice to keep up with trends, but it’s even more satisfying to incorporate things that have long existed in our community, into the foundation of our lives. We believe that these things can fill one’s life with fundamental strength and substance.

This place is neither just a store nor a restaurant. If there’s a problem with a product, we’ll have the manufacturer fix it. If we find something good, we’ll share it with everyone that gathers here. Our hope is that this place will make more people aware of long-lasting, meaningful things.”

Kenmei Nagaoka, D&Department Founder



FOP visited the store and temple multiple times while in Kyoto. There was something magnetic about the environment that was being created. The temple halls across the courtyard from the shop were open everyday, and were nearly always empty, offering a welcome respite from the surrounding urban environment. The store and cafe were bright, inviting and full of lively people and objects, but it didn’t feel overly trendy. It seemed to be a shop that wasn’t really about shopping. At the store we were amazed to find “new” products that had been produced for decades, as well as old objects returned to the store for resale because the owner deemed them capable of a “long life” based on five criteria:

KNOW: We know the maker

USE: We use the product

BUYBACK: We can buyback the product

LONGEVITY: The product is repairable for long-term use

CONTINUITY: The manufacturer will continue making the product

IMG_5276The number inside the black circles shows how long the manufacturer has been making the object (i.e. the blue tag is for an object in continuous production for 78 years.).




 IMG_5438inside the dd cafe

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the twenty-minute program about the concepts behind the store on the NHK program, Design Talks. If you happen to be traveling to Japan, D&Department has created an iPhone app and a series of travel guidebooks focusing on long life design being practices in restaurants, inns and shops in all 47 prefectures in Japan.

Signal Fires
08.21.2015, 1:29 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

IMG_4487all photos this post FOP, 2015 unless otherwise noted

I could see the mountain out my window everyday. For weeks  it seemed that everywhere I looked, there was Daimonji with its enormous 大 character peering back from above. The kanji shape etched into the mountain remains there year round.  It translates literally as “big” and is the location of the largest of the “send off fires” set ablaze each August 16th as part of O-Bon in Kyoto, Japan.

O-Bon is a time when spirits return home for several days and are then ceremoniously sent off via giant fires on five mountains surrounding Kyoto. These fires are said to guide spirits back to the “other side.”

tumblr_inline_nadt9eqt4g1sbmcvjimage 1864: the year Chizuru comes to Kyoto, 花洛名勝図会(元治)1864)年刊行より大文字送火〉

FOP has wanted to attend and experience the O-Bon fires for several years. From afar, we’ve considered the events as highly aesthetic practices for being with change. At its core, O-Bon is an ancient ritual that is predicated on acknowledging that someone is no longer materially in existence — and yet it also welcomes and celebrates their annual “return” — now in non-material form.

The four day holiday, culminating with the fires, seemed to not only be a process for meaningfully setting aside time to pause in highly personal and private ways to be with those who have passed on, but also to invite participation in something much larger than one’s individual family on a city, and even national, scale. It seems many people celebrate O-Bon both as a summer festival with dancing and food and as a traditional religious (Buddhist) holiday.

In Kyoto, the city prepares for the holiday weeks in advance. Countless stores offer special O-Bon sweets and theme-based gifts.

IMG_5358Daimonji wagashi (sweet) from Kagizen Yoshifusa, Kyoto, FOP 2015

When I came to Japan a month ago, I brought my own personal addenda to the O-Bon traditional theme. I came here wondering what O-Bon might offer humans in the age of the Anthropocene — and — if it might be expandable as a translated practice to include the non-human. I also wondered if O-Bon might offer inspiration and assistance for humans seeking aesthetic ways/practices for pausing with what we’re in the midst of losing ( human and nonhuman) on planet Earth at increasingly rapid rates. How might O-Bon reply to my question, “what does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?”

As the days passed, it became increasingly important that I actually climb Mt. Daimonji, experience the mountain’s forest and see the infrastructure that supports the fire here before August 16th arrived.

Japan’s tectonically active landscape is full of steep cliffs and mountains. Its mountains are well-known for being sites for monks to retreat when undergoing ascetic training. Luckily Lonely Planet had rated the Daimonji hike as an “easy” one, so I felt as though I might have a chance of making it to the top.

daimonjiMt. Daimonji, via Google Maps

Still, summer weather in Japan is a force unto itself. When I arrived in mid-July, Typhoon #11 had just arrived too. This pretty much marked the end of the rainy season and the start of “mutsu-atsui” (sultry humidity) weather, which features humidity around 80% day and night. Before arriving, I admit I did not fully appreciate the degree to which sticky, oppressive heat can affect a body. Even with hats, umbrellas and sunscreen, it’s typical to sweat through clothing within minutes of stepping outside.

So in recognition of this newly lived reality,  I decided to begin my climb up Mt. Daimonji at 5am on August 1st, 2015. I hoped that I could climb the mountain and descend before the temperature passed 90F.



I was a bit unnerved to begin this climb alone. One friend had commented, with a smile, that despite being an “easy” climb  often done by schoolchildren, the recent typhoon had probably brought out the snakes.

But I was soon set at ease, and humbled, by the number of people, most of them 20-30 years my senior, already well on their way to the top at 5:30am, despite the heat and humidity.


On the way up, the forest was a cacophony of cicadas, bird calls and flowing water — as well as hikers’ shouts of “good morning” to one another.

IMG_4513wood, presumably left over from last year’s fire.

IMG_4545where the O-Bon wood arrives

During the climb (staircase after staircase) I was able to observe the minimal infrastructure that affords the fires each August. Pulleys, levers and a small loading area shuttles a great deal of wood to the staging area. It was wonderful to encounter this spare infrastructure within a dense forest filled with ferns and running streams — and existing for no other reason than to offer guiding lights for spirits — and in the process bringing light to the millions watching down below.

I reached the summit around 6:45 am.

As I completed my last few steps, I could hear what sounded like a radio program with children counting in Japanese. Turning the corner to the top I was greeted by 10-12 people, who seemed to be friendly strangers, completely immersed in a morning radio calisthenics program. They were facing the morning sun and all of Kyoto spread before us.


I had arrived in the center of the giant 大.




The view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking. The heat incredible. The sense of arrival profound. After the exercises were completed, one man happily informed me that he was 73. Everyone on the mountain that morning, despite being red faced from the ascent, was proud, alive and feeling strong. Their connection to this place and desire to climb this mountain, clearly on a regular basis, was humbling. In this way, I felt like my arrival to the center of the 大 was also a point of contact with a worldview that thrives within this particular demographic in Japan — an outlook that honors and respects the natural world through an intimate and joyful engagement with it.

Countless mornings, due to jet lag, I had been up at dawn and witnessed aging Japanese people sweeping their local sidewalks, silently bowing towards the sun and taking early morning walks.  At the top of Mt. Daimonji I realized that this mountain isn’t a location that is merely activated on August 16th, it’s alive and loved by local people all year round.


Sixteen days later I am standing at the base of Daimonji. The sun is setting just after a storm and the O-Bon fires are scheduled to begin in less than an hour.

My question, “what does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?” has become less urgent.

Over the past month I’ve been newly reminded that life isn’t about obsessing about what is about to slip away. Change is constant. While in Japan I have been simultaneously more “exposed” and “at home” in relation to highly variable environmental contexts than during any other time in my adult life. Architecture in Japan, even modern, doesn’t isolate humans from the elements as much as slightly buffer us from them. People dry laundry outside, they rarely use air-conditioning, they have walls and doors that are open to the outside year-round. Here, it’s not about keeping the outside out — it’s about maintaining a frequent and lively exchange between inside and outside, human and nonhuman.

During several of my language classes this past month, we would briefly pause to notice some new, often incredible, insect that had just wandered into the room from outside. Through what some might call an “accommodation” in bodily comfort, here, humans gain a lived sensation of being in relation to environment and its varying forces.  One feels, lives, even celebrates great variation in seasonality rather than trying to control it. One lives change and inherently senses that life lived in relation to environments that are beyond human control is not a failure of design, or will.

I now realize that my original question was mistakenly focused on the end point of “gone”  — a time of being “too late.” But ongoing change, even change that includes physical death, doesn’t signal an “ending” for everyone and everything.

It sounds basic, but what it takes to truly be alive with “what is right now changing irrevocably” is actually the challenge.  In a time of very real and increasing extinction of lifeforms and intensification of planetary volatility, serious questions arise about how we might not take for granted the world we are a part of — while being able to acknowledge the scale of changes unfolding.

In this way, practices that invite humans to experience and directly live, rather than be cut off from, a highly variable environments seem all the more essential for living meaningfully with change.

So, as the O-Bon fires begin, I know that what I am seeing and feeling is not what Japanese people around me are seeing and feeling. Down here on the street, there is a light-hearted feeling of a summer festival, popsicles, beer and laughter. I also sense that those who are up on Mt. Diamonji right now, having ascended the mountain to ignite the fires, are having a very different experience.

“At last and they reached the peak of Diamonji mountain … and he could look down from the heights, and there down below — completely encompassing the horizon — was in actuality the entire city, darkness had by this point almost completely fallen, the lights were burning down below in the distance already, and they didn’t say anything; he, because the sight left him at a complete loss for words, and Kawamoto because he was afraid that he was showing this in vain, that his friend — who had helped him form a connection between his solitary life in the world, due to which he owed him eternal gratitude — didn’t understand, and it wasn’t possible to explain: here on the peak of Diamonji, this was not the world of words; this gigantic evening picture of the city encircled by mountains said, without a single word, everything that he wanted to tell his friend before bidding farewell: an evening picture as a glimmer of twlight was disappearing into nothingness, and darkness finally descended, down below there was an enormous city, with the tiny lights of it stars setting out an enormous surface for itself, and up here above were the two of them …  although he was pleased that his friend wasn’t talking and was only staring down below with dazzled eyes here from the heights, he was also aware that it was in vain, this friend saw nothing, the Western eye only saw the firefly-like sparkling of the evening city, but nothing of what he wanted to tell him, of what this hopeless, solitary, trembling land was signaling to one from down there below, certainly this place merely signified to him the wonderous gardens, the wonderous monasteries, and the wonderous mountains all around, so that Kawamoto had already turned around, and set off on the path leading downward…”  — Laszlo Krasznahorkai from, Seibo There Below‘The Rebuilding of the Ise Shrine’ p.420



From Above: Hiroshima
08.19.2015, 6:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

hiroshimaHiroshima, Japan on August 7th, all images this post FOP, 2015

It was an odd sensation to walk with through the streets of an unfamiliar city. To feel one’s  awareness constantly being pulled upward, away from the ground plane — away from the  buildings, the gardens, the traffic, people, bikes, rivers and bridges. An invisible weight from above and followed me everywhere I walked.  I was in Japan — so much to take in right in front of me — yet the empty sky held tremendous force. For two and half days the feeling did not lift. It was from “up there” that it came — the force of the first atomic bomb used on civilians in the history of the planet. I found myself repeating the facts in my head like a mantra, in order to accept that they could possibly be true:

There were three planes up there. It was a morning, 70 years ago. August 6th, 1945. One plane was filled with scientific equipment. One plane was filled with photography equipment. And one plane, with the name Enola Gay painted on its nose, flown by General Paul Tibbets, held an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy.” The bomb was conceived of on the plateaus of New Mexico. The people in the planes that day were Americans. Right now, I am on the ground in Japan, about 6000 miles from Los Alamos.  These Americans didn’t set foot in the city that I am presently walking through. They did not see what I am seeing (they missed the Itsukushima Shrine, dating to around 600 AD, they missed the gardens at Shukkein, they missed the constant roar of the cicadas, which are near deafening here in August). They did not look anyone in the eye, here, on the ground. They flew high over this city that morning. They actually dropped an atomic bomb. They really actually did this. The bomb exploded in the sky over this city — right here. Surface temperatures were over 7000 F and instantly killed tens of thousands of people. The people in the planes didn’t see the strange colors that people on the ground describe witnessing after the flash of light — green, blue, yellow — just before everything went black with rain and fire. The beautiful meandering rivers around me today, they soon held the dead and dying. Before stopping over on Tinian, the plane carrying the bomb came from Wendover, Utah. Which, oddly enough, is a place I have spent several weeks of life over the past decade. I can picture the hangar the Enola Gay departed from, I’ve stood inside its crumbling infrastructure. I am now in Hiroshima.

The event of 8:16am (Japan Time), August 6th, 1945 unleashed nonsensical scales of madness:  three planes, hundreds of thousands of lives.  Earth materials that took billions of  years were deployed by humans in a way that shifted the course of humanity and planetary materiality irrevocably within microseconds. The Anthropocene grew strong wings that day.

For the entire time I was in Hiroshima it was as though three tiny planes were flying overhead.

7_front_enolaEnola Gay hangar, from the Limit Case postcard series, smudge studio 2007

On day two in Hiroshima, at the exhibition The 70th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: War and Peace, the work of artist Ikuo Hirayama, a Hiroshima  survivor,  brought me to a standstill. It was as if his piece, Enola Gay (エノアゲイ)  had read  my mind. Hirayama is perhaps best known for his large, multi-panel painting, The  Holocaust at Hiroshima, which was also on view. But here was a small work that showed  exactly what I had been imagining rendered in simple watercolor: three B29 bombers suspended in transparent air. The plane in the foreground was delicately painted with  “Enola Gay.” The work was so matter of fact. It appeared to be a humble attempt at making sense of how these planes could be the catalyst for setting into motion events so immense and inconceivable.



Today Hiroshima is a lively city that has been entirely rebuilt. It’s filled with  real people, parks, gardens, architecture and art (some of the best in the world). Even when taking public transportation around the city, a visitor doesn’t pass out of the range of areas affected by  the blast. But this fact is difficult to hold in mind. Yet, when one encounters the iconic, disfigured wreckage of the Atomic Bomb Dome building, deep material realities rise to awareness: at human body scale, there was no escape.

Memorials and markers can be encountered far beyond the Memorial Park area, in alleys and in gardens, distant from the city center.


Rather than attempt to describe in detail the intimately personal artifacts, ephemera and   stories housed by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and surrounding Park, we invite readers to experience this place on their own time and terms. For many years we’ve  appreciated the phrase “feel it for yourself,” which we perhaps ironically, gleaned from nuclear physicist Freeman Dyson. These words ask for a slowing down and require a “being  there” with all senses — even as we know that the “there” we are feeling is not the “there” of that day in 1945.



For a decade FOP has been devoted to creating “aesthetic prostheses” as provocations for  public audiences to expand their capacities for imagining and acting in relation to deep  geologic time. The nuclear has been central to this work, because of its entanglement with  profound and vast geologic time scales (past and future). We have “felt it for ourselves” at the open house of the first atomic test, Trinity, and alongside the craters from subsequent tests that will reverberate in perpetuity in the exclusion zones of the Nevada Test  Site. We have also stood before a model of “Little Boy” (nearly identical to one found inside the Hiroshima Peace Museum) at a small local museum in Wendover, Utah. Recently, we spent weeks of our      lives traveling U.S Interstate/highway shipping routes for nuclear materials destined for deep geologic storage — a process that became necessary only post-1945 and will remain a pressing necessity for all remaining human history.

These experiences paved the way for and framed my arrival in Hiroshima, under a sweltering summer sun.

IMG_4815Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound (ashes of tens of thousand of people are interred here).


After touring the Peace Memorial Museum and Park, I sought refuge from the afternoon heat in the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art at the top of a beautiful hill. Several important shows are on view in honor of the 70 year anniversary. One exhibition is aptly named Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. Another, Life = Work, includes work that artists  have dedicated nearly their entire lives to creating in response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I was struck by my near total unfamiliarity with the artists being shown.  I felt it as a deep loss.

The exhibitions I saw in Hiroshima that weekend weren’t offered as context for debating whether dropping the bomb was right or wrong, ended the war early or saved lives (American or Japanese). They were apolitical, and simply offered room after room of deep, human expression of what it was like to actually be on the ground, living through an atomic explosion and its aftermath.  I was left wondering what might result if more people everywhere had the chance to encounter and spend time with these works, to simply stop and be with what actually happened to the humans living in Hiroshima on that day.

I offer the following list of works for consideration and personal research: Chimei Hamada, Elegy for a New Conscript: A Flabby Sun Rises, Toshi and Iri Maruki, The Hiroshima Panel, 6th August, Yasuo Kazuki, Stars (Barbed Wire) Summer, Yoshiro Fukui, Hiroshima Atomic Bomb, Ikuo Hirayama, Enola Gay, Ihei Kimura, Living Hiroshima, Hisashi Akutagawa, Child Drinking Water (Water Ota River 4), Shomei Tomatsu, Ms. Urakawa Shizuka and her daughters: Chika, Tomoyo and Mika (from left) ART EYE,  Sadanobu Otsu, Black Rain, Miyako Ishiuchi’s Hiroshima series, Masahiro Usami, Hayashi Yuriko Hiroshima 2014.    

The last exhibition I saw before leaving Hiroshima concluded with museum staff gently urging me to enter a small, final gallery. I was greatly relieved to be met with small cases of ceramic works, including many beautiful tea bowls.

The creators of this culminating exhibition share incredibly insightful words in their curatorial statement — offering a reminder that how we practice daily life, including seemingly mundane exchanges between humans that are culture — are actually at the core of the world we continuously co-create together. And I feel this statement offers a start toward fashioning a reply to the question that I brought with me to Japan : “What does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?”

Commemorations of the Exhibition “War and Peace” The Craftwork of Japan and   Asia — Connected Hearts, Foundation of Peace:

“We have made “Craftwork of Japan and Asia” as one of the pillars of our collection in order to deepen the understanding toward Asia through craftwork familiar in our daily lives. Craftwork enriches a variety of situations in our daily lives and connects the hearts of assembled people. It has been observed that hopes for peace and prosperity are shared among craftwork’s designs even when the place and time are far away. Moreover, craftwork has encouraged the exchange of people, culture, economy and technology by circulating as commodities and gifts. Positive measures have been taken to build a peaceful world without war based on the principle of “creating peace” in Hiroshima Prefecture. Under these circumstances, exchanges through culture can be effective for the formation of a fundamental undercurrent in fostering mutual understanding and respect. The world is connected by culture and there is a force that connects the world vividly appears in craftwork that reflects the hopes of people intimately and had been circulated across national borders [my bold]. We would like to make this an opportunity to consider maintaining and building peace with culture through the “Craftwork of Japan and Asia.”











What Does It Take
07.13.2015, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

What does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?


image NYT via International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2012

“Amphibians have the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals” (About 40 percent of all amphibians are considered endangered). “But also heading toward extinction are one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and sixth of all birds.” – Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, from an interview with NPR’s Terri Gross

For over 500 years Japanese people have held a festival each August in Kyōto called O-Bon (also know as the “festival of the dead”). This event honors the visiting spirits of deceased ancestors and welcomes them “back” for three days (via home altars and visits to graves) and then “sends them off” with massive fires during the Gozan no Okuribi (“five mountain send-off fire”).  The fires are ignited on five mountainsides surrounding the city.

1138012419_7bef10780e_zimage cc Richard Murdey

To date, we have found no parallel to this event, especially in the form of enduring national traditions that attempt to acknowledge and maintain connections to what many humans would typically describe as gone or passed away. This August 16th, FOP will be attending the O-Bon festival to experience first-hand how this ancient ritual still invites and attracts contemporary humans to “be with” what has passed out of being.

FOP will attend the festival, as part of our ongoing research towards developing aesthetic practices that assist humans in attuning to the changing material conditions presently unfolding as the Anthropocene around us.  How can we gracefully accept and adapt to the fact that lifestyles have material limits and respect other species and non-human forces? What does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?

As Japanese people meet emergent conditions of contemporary life, they have access to a rich and long cultural history and a relatively strong social fabric. Over thousands of years, Japanese culture has refined and invented countless practices and forms for negotiating and aesthetically responding to uncertain futures. We sense that many humans can benefit from cultivating more nuanced engagements with forces and dynamics of change. We also believe that aesthetic practices that invite humans to meaningfully and aesthetically be with, consider, and live change, are urgently needed. Aesthetic practices can inform new modes of attuning to and gracefully being with these changes, rather than responding with attempts to rise up and do “battle” with, control or re-design earth forces, or re-inscribe fatalist scenarios.

FOP will be in Japan for the next month. During this time, we will also experience intensive Japanese language immersion, visit Hiroshima in honor of the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb, which occurred on August 6th, 1945.  And, we will research emergent Japanese daily life practices that use aesthetic experience as a way to attune to impermanence in the Anthropocene.


*This research is supported in part by the Tishman Environment and Design Center, The New School.

Masks for the Anthropocene
06.30.2015, 4:25 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

mmexport1435117389464-1v0ggrjXiaoxuan Fu, Dragon Tree Mask (green tea, rice tea, flour and corn tassel)

Design, make and perform a mask to bring awareness to issues related to environmental change and/or possibly alter the behavior of those who use/wear it.

A group of ten students were charged with this task as their final project Masks for the Anthropocene The project was part of a recently completed five-week intensive taught by FOP co-founder Jamie Kruse for the course entitled Sustainable Systems. Sustainable Systems is a first-year required course at Parsons School of Design that introduces and prepares first-year students to work with “wicked problems” as artists and designers.  It does this through sequenced field trips to locations around New York City, lectures, fieldwork and applied scientific methods and encourages students to develop creative skills that support diversity, adaptability and resilience in the face of ever-changing conditions.

The mask project gave students a chance to materialize some aspect of at least one of the themes developed in the class. The themes included: intentional observation, climate change, wicked problems, storm surge, sixth extinction, social resiliency, guilt/denial of climate change, impact on air, water, plants, animals, waste, long-term/geologic thinking and the materials of the Anthropocene (such as plastic and nuclear waste).

Might a mask be able to materialize/translate a theme into an object or character of the Anthropocene that can be experienced? Might a mask invite someone wearing it to behave differently — to become more resilient or provide protection or encouragement in relation to a contemporary environmental problem, such as a nearly extinct animal, a person living near Fukushima, someone living in Evacuation Zone 1 of New York City, or someone dealing with poor air quality in Beijing? What happens to who and what a person “is” when they wear a mask designed with such questions in mind?

Students performatively documented their projects — that is, they activated the masks and interacted with other people or things in the world. Student-designers carefully considered their choices of materials and contextualizing narratives.  The resulting masks were incredibly diverse. All of the students were international (from China, Colombia, Korea, Mexico, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia), and several of the masks focused on issues affecting their home countries.  As a result, the mask offer a global tour of sorts, of regions and materials that are being altered by the Anthropocene.

The project summary, design brief and documentation of the masks can be seen here.  The course blog, Art + Design for Changing Conditions, documents additional course projects, design briefs and curriculum.

image-28r3u7v-768x1024-v1gyix-768x1024Sara (Qihan) Dong, Mask for the Anthropocene


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