STAY BAG: Designing from within Change
11.20.2013, 11:25 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

gobag_499 Office of Emergency Management’s (OEM ) “Go Bag” and contents

After September 11, 2001, the phrase “Go Bag” became common in  New York City’s vernacular. In case of a natural or man-made emergency, citizens were told it’s important to have a bag of essentials ready to take with us at a moment’s notice. The contents are supposed to be items that will allow us to be self-sufficient for days without electricity, food, or water.  Scores of New Yorkers prepared Go Bags, just in case. With recent storms Irene and Sandy, the Go Bag became newly relevant and was emphasized by the New York  Office of Emergency Management’s campaign: “Ready New York.”  These days, the OEM promotes its “Go Bag” on its website in conjunction with a host of social media links and a monthly quiz that New Yorkers can use to test their preparedness.  The prize?  An OEM Go Bag.

Since Sandy, we’ve been wondering what else we might need besides iodine tablets, water and flashlights for the events of change that continuously affect New York City. In this new age of the Anthropocene,  we’re always already “inside” events of change — such as the formation of one of the largest typhoons in recorded history half way around the world. If there is no “outside” of such change events, what do we need in order to stay with their complex realities and engage them on a daily basis?  If there’s no “away” to go to, then maybe we should reframe the very terms of our engagement with change events—through something like a “Stay Bag.”

Designing a “Stay Bag for Resilient Futures” is this semester’s final project assigned by FOP’s Jamie Kruse for her undergraduate course at Parsons.  She asked students to design a “bag” and contents that illustrate the concept that there is no “away” when it comes to change events, and that offers some sort of resiliency for a specific population or zone in New York City. The Stay Bag reflects the reality that we (all humans) have nowhere to “go” to in relation to emerging planetary futures. We are all, especially artists and designers, charged to meet, engage and respond as creatively as possible to changing environmental conditions wherever we are and pretty much all the time.

This project isn’t about slighting the Go Bag, which offers an extremely useful set of tools and affordances in the case of an extreme event. But, what might we design for times when the sun is out — but Fukushima continues to leak across the ocean? What “tools” can the Stay Bag offer us that the Go Bag can’t because it’s designed for emergency mode?

As Earth continues to accumulate and respond to the effects of human impact, a Stay Bag might take the form of a set of aesthetic and conceptual happenings disguised as a portable community center. Or an aesthetic experience that takes audiences “through an inner space that is hard to traverse” (Morton, Hyperobjects, page 184)—such as the dawning realization that we are already inside the Anthropocene.  How might a Stay Bag offer sensations that encourage us to recalibrate our responses to ongoing change and our (human) role in intensifying uncertain futures? What things and realities, previously overlooked, might such a bag aid us in co-existing with?

Here at FOP, we’re intrigued by the possibilities of the Stay Bag as an aesthetic and design provocation. What forms might Stay Bags take for our neighborhood in Brooklyn? How might this “bag” and its contents be reinterpreted, say, Los Alamos, New MexicoVík , Iceland, Oslo or Tokyo? Despite the massive differences and distances between those places, humans in each one of them are affecting, and being affected by, the same larger “hyperobjects” (such a global warming or the need to quarantine nuclear waste). So, what might a set of Stay Bags designed for different cities offer when considered in juxtaposition?  FOP will explore the Stay Bag-as-provocation over the course of the next year though several projects and collaborations currently in-progress.

Kaen-doki-web-682x1024Kaen-doki flame-ware vase, Middle Jōmon period (3,500–2,500 BCE). Earthenware; 11 5/8 inches high, 11 5/8 inches diameter. Collection of John C. Weber.

We ask you to take one more conceptual leap with us as we sort through some initial thoughts on what a Stay Bag might be/come.

Recently, we had the chance to experience Mariko Mori’s exhibition, Rebirth, at the Japan Society. The show is self-described as one that transforms the Japan Society galleries into “Mori’s world through 35 sculptures, drawings, photographs, sound and video works, strung together into a narrative of birth, death and rebirth—a continuous circle of life force that the artist observes on a cosmic scale. Journey through space, time and consciousness in this immersive installation.”

The core inspiration for Mori’s work in Rebirth was her engagement with ancient Japan, primarily through fieldwork that she conducted at Jōmon archaeological sites throughout her native country. As noted on the Japan Society blog, this included stone circles that are thousands of years old and Jōmon pottery, which remarkably has been credited with being the first pottery in the world.

Upon entering the galleries at the Japan Society, visitors are immediately confronted by a Middle Jōmon pot (pictured above) that is more than 5,000 years old, resting under a dramatic spotlight in an otherwise cool, dark and silent space.  As the New York Times comments, this first encounter is a highlight of the show.

When we look at such ceramics, we look at (and experience) how humans have activated design as an affordance for navigating change.  The alchemy of clay and fire rendered life massively easier for humans from that point forward. It immediately changed our relationship to challenges of food preparation and storage, and  how we could henceforth move through the world. The ability to transport things without leaking and breaking down was previously an impossible reality.  Jōmon pottery was invented during a significant turn in human evolution and design—a time when planetary changes, namely climate change, were transforming daily life. This pottery became an extremely useful tool for navigating geologic change at the end of the Pleistocene epoch.

If we can manage to experience this pot as a mighty signal of humans’ capacities to design for the challenges of planetary change, it might communicate something  valuable and prescient to us today. Seemingly inert materials writhe with potential. Enchantment lies in the unknowability that separates us from the specifics of the pot’s creators and its previous uses.  Nevertheless, to us, this pot provides inspiration for a contemporary “Stay Bag.” It communicates the wildlydynamic potential of what things might look and feel like when human capacity to design meets planetary change from within daily life practices — from within the “stay” position, so to speak.

What might be most intriguing about the Jōmon pots is that they are functional while ALSO being expressive, decorative, performative, ritualistic and animistic. The ancient pot pictured above is startlingly alive and vibrant. Known as “kaen-doki” or “flame-ware,” it’s easy to imagine the pot’s twisting forms projected by pulsing firelight onto the walls of Jōmon interiors during rituals, as archeologists suspect they once did.  Arguably, designs that supply such a gamut of functional and aesthetic capacities cultivate a certain mode of human existence. The humans that invented Jōmon pottery were highly attuned to the forces of change that surrounded them on many levels simultaneously. How might we activate the materials that surround us today and make things that ground us within, and draw us closer to, the complex planetary realities that we face — while supplying us with objects that deepen our experiences of “here and now” beyond mere functionality?

This specific pot, as it passes through Mori’s show, continues a recontextualizing relay among artists that has been thousands of years in-the-making. What might Stay Bags of today relay to artists and citizens 6,000 years from now? The pot is an object from the deep past that also enacts a message that extends into the far future. How might we pick up and continue that relay from here? What do we need our “bags” to hold on a daily basis, while supporting the new, unprecedented movements that sea-level rise and radiation leaks will require of us?

The invention of Jōmon ceramics marks the emergence of a lively assemblage of co-existence humans, materials, time and earth forces, and daily life practices necessitated and enacted in the face of massive change. The pots are simultaneously outcomes and processes. They are reminders that humans have navigated monumental change in the past — and that we are capable of inventing things to meet the massive difference/change that is just now coming into existence. The provocation to design and build a Stay Bag is a context for activating our capacities to design and make within, and from, what we can sense and experience when we deeply inhabit the planet from a responsive “stay position.”

2 Comments so far
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Brilliant, as always!

Comment by bremnerl54

Thanks for reading!

Comment by FOP

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