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Tjuvholmen, also known as Thief Island, is an emerging edge in urban Oslo that is activating “art,” “design” and Scandinavian “north-ness” as an attractor. The island, part of an urban renewal project built on landfill extensions, signals to the world that Oslo is now open to receiving alter-rhythms of human activity from around the globe.
views from Thief Island, Oslo
It’s questionable whether such projects “turn at the limits of the world.” And it’s not clear that such projects acknowledge that we are building them even as we humans arrive at, and exceeded, material limits of the world. Yet, it’s also important to acknowledge the complexities and contradictions that such projects raise for all artists, designers and architects whose work (ours included) trades in the very same terms (art, design, changing environmental realities etc.).
As we take up work that positions us at edges of change, we take up responsibility to enact new ways of meeting highly complex, deeply enmeshed, wide-reaching (non-local), fast changing material limits, such as those that converge at Thief Island and other coastal urban centers around the world. Most of those material limit are invisible. We cannot sense most of them directly or immediately. But unlike other animals, we humans (especially artists, designers and architects) are now capable sensing the world’s limits indirectly through our tools, media, and interpretations of data. We are capable of using our species’ extended cognition to recognize material limits that involve multiple dimensions and are distributed across far flung human and nonhuman bodies.
maps of Thief Island, Google Maps
In relation to melting arctic and Antarctic ice, Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University recently told the New York Times:
… while a large rise of the sea may now be inevitable from West Antarctica, continued release of greenhouse gases will almost certainly make the situation worse. The heat-trapping gases could destabilize other parts of Antarctica as well as the Greenland ice sheet, potentially causing enough sea-level rise that many of the world’s coastal cities would eventually have to be abandoned.
“If we have indeed lit the fuse on West Antarctica, it’s very hard to imagine putting the fuse out,” Dr. Alley said. “But there’s a bunch more fuses, and there’s a bunch more matches, and we have a decision now: Do we light those?”
Urban development plans and designs that do not “turn at the limits of the world” function in the human + nonhuman world as “fuses”—as generators of algorithms of cultural and material change that, once lit, cannot be put out. Instead, they will play out to limits beyond what we (especially Western encultured people) have taken to be livable in terms of comfort, health, and well-being. Contemporary human activities, desires, assumptions, and urban plans have indeed set up “a bunch more fuses.” Various human constituencies are asking, even demanding that they be lit. The question remains as to what other differences might be returned to the city of Oslo if “revitalization of an old harbor area” and a “design hotel” took their design specifications to be the newly emerging and unprecedented limits of the human+nonhuman world. We pose the same question back to ourselves as artists, designers and researchers who are invested in engaging emergent planetary realities. How might we turn (work, live, design) differently if we accepted and attuned to these limits? The question is large, and complex, but it is central to our work with the Future North project, and beyond.
Following Jane Bennett, we are convinced that we can no longer sense limits of the world as single issue questions such as whether to build here or not, whether to drill here or not, whether to approve a new design hotel or not. But rather, we must meet what contemporary limits of the world deliver to us with questions such as this: how do complex human-nonhuman assemblages that churn out negative patterns of effects hold themselves together, endure, and feed themselves? Some human – nonhuman assemblages are burning fuses that might be put out. And some are fuses that might remain unlit, but only if we re-tune and recalibrate our bodies/brains/minds to receiving subtle, indirect, veiled notices of the world’s complexly interwoven, new limits. And then, only if we turn.
Thief Island, with the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art on left
*all images this post FOP 2014 unless otherwise noted.
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