The Thingness of Energy
08.15.2011, 4:52 pm
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“At a time when faulty oil rigs pose overwhelming challenges, when concrete barriers continue to brutally define boundaries, when engineered food has forever altered what people eat, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics embarks on a two-year exploration of the material world. In the face of virtual realities, social media and disembodied existences, the center will focus on the material conditions of our lives and examine “thingness,” the nature of matter.

From the fall of 2011 to the spring of 2013, the Vera List Center (VLC) will organize public and transdisciplinary conversations, roundtables, workshops, and on-line programs, involving scholars, artists, policy makers, journalists and cultural workers, around the topic of  “thingness.”” – Vera List Center for Art and Politics

Ravenswood Generating Station in Long Island City, aka “Big Allis” after the million-kilowatt Allis-Chalmers generator inside.
When it opened in 1963 it was the largest electrical generating unit in the world.
It produces 20% of New York City’s energy needs, FOP 2011

It’s not news to repeat readers of this blog that humans are both intimately living with and rapidly using up materials that took scores of millions of years to form.  Or that humans enculturate geologic materials, transforming them into products, life-supporting affordances, architectures, and infrastructures.  Yet, most of us don’t immediately think of geologic things when we pay our electricity bills or surf the internet. Humans rarely connect seemingly immaterial things such as “energy” and electricity with the interminably slow processes, monumental temperatures and pressures, and sheer mass of matter that it takes to compose many of the substances that power our lights and computers. Yet, when we acknowledge the reality of ever increasing energy demand, dwindling reserves, and the precarious nature of many of our electricity generating and delivery infrastructures, it is clear why energy has become one of the most pressing issues humans face.

In an effort to create new contexts for energy to be sensed as a tangible, material—and perhaps even “living” force in our lives—FOP is launching a year-long artist project in collaboration with The New School‘s Vera List Center and the Office for Sustainability, Facilities Management.  In response to the Center’s 2011-13 theme of “thingness,” FOP’s project is entitled, The Thingness of Energy.  We will explore, literally, the “things” that fuel The New School by creating artworks that invite audiences (students, faculty, staff, and the public) to newly sense energy as being composed of materials that result from and contribute to geologic forces and flows.

from The New School’s 2011 Climate Action Plan

The Thingness of Energy will take up a wide-range of energy related topics, including some related to the current draft of The New School’s Climate Action Plan, with its ambitious goal of becoming a carbon neutral institution by 2040. With the support of Security, Systems and Facilities staff, we will use The New School as a case-study for documenting where and how “energy” flows into and through an urban campus, along entry and exit points for wires and cables, electrical outlets and breaker boxes, ventilation ducts—and the carbon intensive spots such as server rooms.  We’ll attempt to untangle and trace local manifestations of the seemingly indecipherable “grid” that supplies electricity to New York City, and in turn The New School, including the Eastern Interconnection and the Northeast Power Coordinating Council (NPCC).

distribution board, via wikicommons

As author Jane Bennett has said,”the electrical grid is a better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood— to name just some of the actants” (Vibrant Matter, p. 25). Working from Bennett’s insights, FOP will also follow the flows and effects of #2 and #4 heating oils, natural gas, nuclear power, coal, hydro power and steam not only through the walls of The New School and around the City, but upriver, upstate—and beyond, considering how these energy “things” are forms of “vibrant matter,” substances in motion that act both with and independently of human actions and desires.

transmission substation via wikicommons

Our approach will be research-based, but the outcomes will be aesthetic.  We will creatively respond to equivalents (such as the hertz, lumen, and kelvin) invented by humans in attempts to grasp and quantify the scales and speeds of the raw heat and light.  We look forward to finding ways to make palpable the monumental scale of difference between a watt and a gigawatt, and to designing ways to actually sense the thingness of the British Thermal Unit (one BTU is equivalent to a single burning match).

We plan to construct five interactive “geo-cache boxes,” tag them with GPS coordinates, and install them throughout The New School during the spring of 2012. These boxes will function both as art installations and as pedagogical provocations for students, faculty, and the public to engage. Updates and works-in-progress related to the project will be posted throughout the next year.

A primary goal for The Thingness of Energy is to render sense-able and palpable the complex, monumental histories of the earth materials that are converted into energy, and then transported along remote and local grids, to power the production of knowledge at urban universities such as The New School.


The Vera List Center for Art and Politics has begun to announce its programming for Fall 2011. The inaugural lecture for the 2011-13 theme of “thingness” will take place on September 13th at 6:30 pm and be presented by Janet Bennett, author of the Vibrant Matter

3 Comments so far
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Fantastic, Liz and Jamie! I’m looking forward to this! We might be able to create some links between your project and my Urban Media Archaeology class in the fall and my Media & Materiality class in the spring.

Comment by shannon mattern

Excellent! We are looking for collaborators, so we should definitely talk. We’ll follow-up via email. Great to hear from you!

Comment by FOP

[…] “thing power.” We also consider possible tie-ins with Jamie Kruse’s “Thingness of Energy” project, supported by the Vera List […]

Pingback by Media & Materiality, Round 2 | Words in Space

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