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What does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?
“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.
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.
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Xiaoxuan 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.
Sara (Qihan) Dong, Mask for the Anthropocene
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Cover Art, © Mary Mattingly, House and Universe, 2013
We are pleased to announce the release of a book that we’ve been anticipating — Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin.
This timely collection takes “as its premise that the proposed epoch of the Anthropocene is necessarily an aesthetic event.” Its contributors explore “the relationship between contemporary art and knowledge production in an era of ecological crisis” and the volume includes a “multitude of disciplinary conversations, drawing together artists, curators, scientists, theorists and activists to address the geological reformation of the human species.”
All are welcome to download the book or purchase print copies. Many thanks to Heather and Etienne for including our work.
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“Is it not impossible that future humans will have built something like spirituality around these materials?” Care for the hyperobject will emerge … What do you do with the radioactive waste? You can’t just sweep it under the Yucca Mountain carpet and hope nobody notices … Hyperobjects are the true taboos, the demonic inversion of the sacred substances of religion … Isn’t it ironic that supposedly materialist, secular societies created the ultimate spiritual substances?” – The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton (p.132)
“In Zeami’s later critical works yūgen takes on a darker coloration … Yūgen in fact tends to reject conventional notions of beauty: if a display of feminine grace on the Nō stage were the highest aim, real women could now take the parts, though they were not permitted on the stage in Zeami’s day. But the thought of a woman performing the role of say, the courtesan Eguchi is repugnant to lovers of Nō who insist that a man in his sixties with a cracked bass voice and large, ugly hands has more yūgen. They are right: anyone who saw Kita Roppeita dance the role of the shite in Sagi (“the White Heron”), a man in his eighties taking the part of a bird, surely sensed the mysterious, indefinable presence of yūgen.” – Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene (p. 23)
Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), Film. (Courtesy the artist; Hauser & Wirth, London; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Esther Schipper, Berlin; Anna Lena, Paris, © Pierre Huyghe)
The girl is agitated, pacing. She is waiting in a dark and empty room. The structure is some kind of house or restaurant. Fusuma doors display iconic, ancient landscapes — scenes of a “nature” typically (imagined) to be inhabited by reclusive monks who have renounced the world. A scroll of calligraphy, slightly out of focus in the background, displays a phrase typically referenced in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony “一期一会“（ichi-go ichi-e). The words literally translate as “one time one meeting.” But they also are used to express, “for this time only,” “never again,” or “one chance in a lifetime.” Maggots crawl through spoiled food. A faucet drips. Rain pours off the roof. She climbs into a chair. Her face, smooth and even, is that of a perfectly sculpted Nō mask. It reflects an eerie glow of blue green light. She appears consumed by the waiting, pulling at her hair. Her arms and legs are covered in fur. She has the posture of a wild animal — a monkey.
The people around me in the gallery, also watching this video, seem uncomfortable. The silence is charged. The video is on loop and I wonder what it is like for visitors who are right now walking into this unpleasant and confusing scene. What is this creature?
It’s important to note that the piece starts with the footage of the wreckage. All that was torn from the land in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake in 2011. What we see on screen, in reality, can’t be repaired because it exists within the exclusion zone. There are real places like this in Japan. Radiation is everywhere. All the people have left.
Is this video fiction, or is it reality? Perhaps they are the same in this context. Could this equation of fiction and reality be the beauty, the mysterious grace — the yūgen you might say — of this ambiguous video by Pierre Huyghe that is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
Both Huyghe’s roof commission and this video piece require patience and a reorientation to notions of time. They both require the long, geologic view, but from a human body and with a human scale — a certain kind of waiting. These works require us to leave the world as we tend to experience it in our daily, habitual lives. They require both an imaginative and a grounded sense of existing on geologically active planet Earth. In return, we get a chance to experience a little more intimately, and uncomfortably, the contemporary world we inhabit, but don’t yet seem to have the tools/capacities to actually take in.
I left Untitled (Human Mask) reeling. Cherry blossoms were blowing through the streets of New York. It was a spectacular spring day outside the Museum. The heaviness of the video was a strong counterpoint to the uplift I found outside — the sky, the light, the sense of a new season finally beginning. News of the drought in California had been making headlines all week and now the beautiful landscaping and fountains I saw on the streets suddenly appeared excessive. I was filled with a sense of all things surpassing limits. The limits of waiting — for rain, for action, for radioactive particles to undergo transmutation into lesser forms. This moment of realization felt like a resigned but calm acceptance. I could continue to walk through the day as though all was “okay” or I could take up the invitation from Huyghe and go deeper into the theatre of reality for a moment or two. To pause with what we might call, the yūgen of hyperobjects, such as the Anthropocene.
In the Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton writes: “Ecological collectivities must make space for introversion and reflection, including meditative practices … ‘radical passivities’ … must work directly on attitudes … Meditation means exposing our conceptual fixations and exploring the openness of the mesh. Politics must begin to include (difficult word!) spirituality, in the sense of radical questioning and opening … Meditation does not mean emptying the mind or suppressing the intellect. It doesn’t mean doing nothing … Meditation implies an erotics of coexistence, of not just letting things be.” (p127)
Huyghe’s video is both distant and extremely intimate. We are inside and outside of its spaces and times (the gallery, Japan, the waiting, the past, present, future) simultaneously. The piece works, if not grates, intensely on our psychologies. It’s almost absurdist theater, a Waiting for Godot of the Anthropocene, and demands a viewing audience with a certain sturdiness. You quickly discover whether or not you’re up to the task. It asks quietly, in the dark, if you are ready to meet these unknowns. And you have to answer only to yourself about how long you do in fact pause before you get up to leave.
The description posted on the Met’s website doesn’t prepare visitors for what they encounter. It reads, “Pierre Huyghe: Human Mask—on view from April 27 through August 9, 2015, in gallery 916—will present the New York premiere of Huyghe’s new nineteen-minute video, Untitled (Human Mask), which portrays a mysterious creature’s resilience in the aftermath of natural and man-made disaster.”
No mention of Japan. No mention of Fukushima. No mention of the loneliness, the agonizing wait or the forced exodus. The words imply a piece about resilience and a future.
The wall text accompanying the video is more detailed than the Met’s website. Here, steps from the piece itself, visitors learn that we are about to experience a work that, “explores the paradoxical rift between what we think we know about the world and what it can and cannot, in turn, tell us. Untitled (Human Mask) evokes many such themes: the monotony of work and the repetition of ritualistic behaviors, the possibility of a catastrophic future, and the power that living creatures hold over us as ciphers of ourselves.” We also learn that the work, “opens with a deserted streetscape near Fukushima, Japan, which was devastated by natural and man-made disaster in 2011. Amid the ruin, the camera enters an abandoned restaurant and finds what appears to be the only survivor: a monkey adorned with a mask and costume of a young girl…”
The effect is one of psychological endurance. Even if you don’t find yourself thinking about what occurred (and continues to affect the planet) on March 11-13th, 2011, there is something about the video that you likely will find to be unshakable: an unnamable sense of recognition.
In Untitled (Human Mask) Huyghe offers audiences engagements with the strange stranger of the Anthropocene — and it/s/he seemingly looks and moves uncannily like us, in a state of unravelling. Parsing out what’s fiction and what’s reality no longer computes. As David Neumann did in his deeply human, “I Understand Everything Better,” Huyghe has crafted a work that offers a brief, but sustained, aesthetic encounter with elusive sensations of mortality. Perhaps this is a themes most of us would rather not engage on a Saturday afternoon, but our culture’s inability to “hold the thought” of limits has contributed at least a bit to our arrival at the Sixth Extinction. Some have aptly suggested that the development of material and psychological capacities for being with change, or what we call “death” in the West, is becoming increasingly urgent as we head into the unknowable futures of the Anthropocene. It many ways, it amounts to a question of spiritual constitution. How might we be become better prepared, not just materially, but psychologically and philosophically, to meet what’s already here?
This summer we (FOP/smudge) will be spending an extended period of time in Japan, undergoing language immersion and exploring new trajectories for our work, such as performative/theatre practices and yūgen in particular. Also, as part of an intensive summer session at Parsons, a group of students will be producing a project entitled, “Nō Masks for Navigating the Anthropocene.” We will share more about these projects in coming weeks.
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“What we call yūgen lies within the mind and cannot be expressed in words. Its quality may be expressed by the sight of a gauzy cloud veiling the moon or by the autumnal mists swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside. If one is asked where yūgen can be found in these sights, one cannot say; a man who cannot understand this truth is quite likely to prefer the sight of the moon shining brightly in a cloudless sky. It is quite impossible to explain wherein lies the interest or wonder of yūgen.” -Buddhist priest and poet, Shōtetsu (1381-1459), from Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene
from “I Understand Everything Better,” image by Maria Baranova, courtesy Advanced Beginner Group
(See Interfacing the Anthropocene Part I for an introduction to this post and Interfacing the Anthropocene Part III for a continuation.)
The entire stage was in motion, serpentine waves of billowing plastic. As “the wind” increased its fury, our main character gallantly attempted to confront the storm that swirled violently around him. It was a pivotal moment of David Neumann’s performance, ‘I Understand Everything Better’ at the Abrons Arts Center.
The New York Times has described Neumann as having weathered “a number of storms in recent years, personal and meteorological.” And in ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ “he reflects on the deaths of his parents, which bookended Superstorm Sandy. Techniques from Japanese Noh theater, along with his characteristic wit, provide grounding and leavening forces.”
In the last moments of ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ after the storm has passed, a father is about to die. Neumann (as his father) is moving slowly off stage, dressed in white attire reminiscent of traditional Shinto and Nō costume. His exit is meticulous. Step by step. In silence. It is a slow, ritualistic movement. It conveyed a process of passing out of being. Another character on stage, serving as the character’s medical attendant, states definitively, “I’m here till’ he’s gone.” And, off he goes, into his “next.”
Core to the concept of Nō theater is yūgen, which roughly translates as subtle beauty, mystery and profound grace. We (FOP/smudge) feel it is the urgent task of artists to discover and enact new practices that cultivate new sensations of, and fortitude for, living within emerging planetary realities. Our hunch is that this is will be more effectively taken-up through embodied practice rather than through representation or description. Neumann’s appropriation of Nō to communicate and enact the loss of his parents — and to indirectly link these passings to the upheavals of planetary systems (i.e. hurricane as metaphor for Anthropocene), left us newly inspired.
from “I Understand Everything Better,” image by Maria Baranova, courtesy Advanced Beginner Group
Neumann’s ritualistic exit from the stage was risky. It was slow and processual. It drew us in closer until we were with him. American culture tends to avoid lingering over themes of death and other limits — and over the idea of not grasping for more (time, resources etc.). Yet signals that we humans are approaching new limits are everywhere. It’s stressing us out. The gathering “storms” signals to us the many limits we do indeed face.
We noted, appreciatively, that when Neumann needed to express something deeper, more sacred, about the changes he was experiencing in his life, he sought “training” outside of American cultural traditions. For thousands of years, cultures such as Native Americans and the Japanese, just to name two, have been refining embodied and often aesthetic practices intended to invite humans to continuously acknowledge their (humble) place within larger planetary realities. In preparation for ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ Neumann took part in a “Nō Immersive” in Tokyo, under a fellowship grant from the Asian Cultural Council.
Neuman elaborates on his attraction to Nō for The New Yorker, “Watching Noh is like looking at an airplane in the sky. It is slow and serene. But if you were up there with it there would be all this noise and black smoke.”
In the playbill for the performance Neumann writes that with the loss of his parents he “felt a significant change … a new perspective—a type that only loss can bring…” and that Superstorm Sandy lent, “a sense of humility in the face of the natural world, and with that, the perspective only nature provides.” Neumann has said that he was never interested in attempting to imitate Nō, but rather his work “shares some formal elements with both the Nō and Kabuki theaters, and with that, the desire to engage and activate our imaginations.”
As FOP/smudge, we sense that if contemporary humans (Americans, in particular) feel there are a limited number of meaningful practices available in our contemporary culture that enable us to turn towards the planetary realities and limits that we currently face, instead of distracting us away from them, it is important that we (especially artists) learn from such practices that exist elsewhere — and then attempt to invent our own. Neumann has done just this.
A New Yorker review goes on to say: “In that act of containment, Neumann feels that he found a chastening vehicle for a potentially chest-banging subject. He thinks, also, that Nō reinforced in him the conviction that he has to trust the audience. ‘I don’t want to try to convince them that they should like my show, or that they should feel something at a certain point. To refrain from that requires patience. I used to have no patience. I’ve learned some.'”
As we navigate our way through the limits that the Anthropocene is delivering, embodied practices such as the performance Neumann invented, can offer means for gaining nuanced acceptance of the fast, intense material changes taking place on a global scale. By inventing and enacting such practices of our own, we can make contact with emerging realities without being left to reel in states of distraction or despair.
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“… to see beauty which might be sensed, if not described. Their preference for suggestion and mystery was shared be the masters of the tea ceremony, and by the landscape architects who created gardens bare of flowers or trees … the bare stage, the insignificant props, the movements of the actors, recalling at once the Zen priest and the warrior…” – from Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene, 1966
Hisa and Hikaru Uzawa, mother daughter Nō performers, image Donald Keene Center, New York
The ghost. The beggar. The whistler. The trickster fox. The dead. The laughing. At me? Or someone/thing else? They were staring out from behind the glass cases. A multitude of eyes peering back at me. Some of the faces were cold, ancient, distant. All contained secrets that would not be disclosed readily. They were from another world, yet utterly present with me in the room. The silent gallery was populated by them. Chills ran up my arms. I diverted my eyes to the wall text. It read, “Japan’s Noh Theatre: Around the eighth century various Chinese theatrical traditions made their way to Japan…”
The exhibition, “Becoming Another: The Power of Masks” is currently on view at the Rubin Museum in New York. Here, a variety of masks created for traditional theatre (such as Nō) as well as masks used in communal rituals and shamanistic practices around the world (Northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia, Japan, and the North-West Coast tribes of North America) are on exhibit until next fall.
Some of the Nō masks were disturbing, their faces mournful for unknowable reasons and circumstances. Others provided comic relief, more funny than frightening. Donald Keene has written that looking at Nō masks is like “seeing a voice.”
Immediately upon encountering the Nō masks, I was struck by the feeling that they represented an uncanny constellation of expressions/beings/characters and sensations. To me, they spoke of a complex composite of Anthropocene actants: beggars, villains, animals, beauties, goblins and deities. Which were the faces of oil and gas company CEOs? Which were the faces of those living beside the Salton Sea? Which were me? Which were we, as the human species still in the midst of becoming? Or, perhaps all of us, human and non-human actors alike, can be found in all of them?
In traditional Nō theater things move slowly. Movements are methodical, intentional, calculated. There is no space for improvisation. There isn’t a plot or character development in any sense familiar to Western theater forms. Yet through constraint, vast depths of experience, emotion, and meaning are communicated. Nō is the longest continuously performed theatre practice in the world. It has been speculated that Nō was originally preformed for gods, instead of human audiences, at Shinto shrines in Japan centuries ago. These “gods” were forces of the seasons and landscapes (mountains, rivers and seasons). Following this theme, a particular Nō play was often performed in the season it was associated with, and sometimes only once.
In recent months, we’ve been conducting extensive research into Nō. A great deal of background history for the art form is easily found online. We also highly recommend a more in-depth introduction via Nō and Bunraku by Donald Keene. In this book, Keene describes Nō as a “mood created by motionlessness” and “a dramatic poem concerned with remote or supernatural events.” He also writes that its form is “the search for meaning beyond appearances,” and that Nō’s purpose is to: “move profoundly and transcend the particular and touch the springs of human emotions.” Characters offer “momentary embodiments of great emotions.” Nō acting is closely related to sacred rite. It can be understood is ritual. The actors are more like mediums than performers, as “the moment he [the main actor] puts on the mask … marks the transition from his daily existence to the special realm of his art.” Though, the actor’s “slowness of pace and unrelieved gravity may weary [him], this risk is taken deliberately.” Building off our own growing sensibility that how we conduct ourselves towards the unknown, and towards one another, will be of great consequence in the Anthropocene, we believe Nō offers vital inspiration for this challenge.
from the Rubin Museum (otafuku “beauty and good fortune,” horned mask for village ceremonies, ko-omote (young woman) Usofuki, “whistler” from Kyogen, and the “trickster” fox/kitsune).
Given the material limits we face in the Anthropocene, we feel that the intentionality of Nō practice, coupled with its strict physical delimitations, potentially infinite depth of meaning, and hybridity of performance (there are 140 derivations of Nō masks, many of them extremely subtle), can aid us immensely in living the Anthropocene.
If there’s something humans need to learn to accept in the Anthropocene, it’s limits. Nō invites a wide gamut of response to limits — through limited gestures. What can be accepted, embodied and practiced through an aesthetic exploration of limits? How might we embody/enter constraints with utmost intentionally — and in alliance with non-human forces? What aesthetic contexts might we invent that invite an intimate interfacing with forces of the non-human: weather, animals, forces of change? What practices invite us to become more nuanced, hybrid — and aesthetically engaged in and by our actions — despite the challenges we face?
“suffering ghost” Nō mask from Japan, at the Rubin Museum
Japanese karura “eagle-like bird,” said to have wings and a human body. Adopted into Buddhism as a protector deity
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walking and siting the geologic along 6th avenue, April 24, 2015
As spring finally arrives in New York, motivation to get outside has escalated and the topic of where and how to walk in New York has become an increasingly popular topic.
This past weekend we had the pleasure of leading two walks through the streets of New York, with a particularly geologic focus. The artist-led walking tours were offered through MoMA, and entitled, Uncovering Deep Time in Midtown: A Walking Tour. The walks took off from and updated our 2011 project, Geologic City.
Our two groups were invited to experience and consider geologic forces and flows that give form and foundation to New York City — and then ultimately to consider the deep futures that the city, as a geologic force in its own right, is now setting up. We asked walkers to get curious with us about how imagining deep time might assist city dwellers to inhabit and creatively navigate current planetary changes underway.
On April 24th, we set out with a group of students from Columbia University, most of whom were enrolled in a provocatively titled Anthropology course: “Ecocriticism for the End Times.” This group needed little introduction to the topic of the Anthropocene and related ideas, and was particularly open to discussing the geologic impact humans are having on the planet, as well as the cultural and biological impacts that we humans are experiencing in return. They readily activated our Anthropocene Viewer.
On Saturday, our public tour began in a MoMA classroom with a brief introduction to geologic time (and the considerations of the Anthropocene) before heading out. From there, we endeavored to see if we could, at least for four short blocks, use various “aesthetic prostheses” to assist our brains in their efforts to grasp what some say is ungraspable for humans: deep time. The images, poetic language, and devices we used invited us to take a break from our habitual ways of experiencing the City. For this segment of the walk, we would instead try and experience our familiar urban environment as newly filled with materials that are, in fact, “time travelers” delivered by geologic history into the present, where they populate and animate our contemporary world.
When we arrived at 50th Street and 5th Avenue, we paused beside the LEGO® store display window. We used magnifying glasses to inspect tiny bryozoan fossils that what make up the 350 million year old Indiana Limestone cladding on the sides of the building in Rockefeller Center. We then turned to face the tower of 30 Rockefeller Center, and took note of the uncanny, striking resemblance between the fossilized, lattice-like structures that colonies of Bryozoa built 350 million years ago, and the structure of the iconic NYC building that is 79 Rockefeller Center. The “windows” in the fossilized lattice are where the soft-bodied Bryozoa lived, suspended in comfortable air bubbles — not unlike the workers in offices behind the windows of The Rock.
We then gave our walkers a chance to pause, sketch, write, and consider the force of geologic time that has created and shaped the materials that afford our everyday life in the City.
magnified view of the Indiana Limestone that adorns Rockefeller Center, FOP 2015
As we walked to our next site, we attempted to view taxi cabs as “geology in motion.” Taxis are both fueled by and coated in primordial bodies of the Devonian, Permian and Cretaceous. The car paint color known as “taxi yellow” is manufactured out of oil by DuPont. Its color code is M6284. The crude oil used to cover and propel NYC’s taxies is the transformed remains of marine animals and plants covered by layers of silt and sand, then subjected to immense forces of heat, pressure and time.
Along the way, we used the concept of Pre-Earthian to ponder human entanglement with deep time. Pre-Earthian materials (elements such as iron) formed during cosmic events that pre-date our planet. Today we see them manifested in urban human affordances such as manhole covers which were scattered in abundance across the streets around Rockefeller Center. And our everyday links to Pre-Earthian iron extends far beyond — to the iron core of our planet which gives us our magnetic poles — to the blood coursing through our bodies as we walked.
Back at the MoMA, we had a short break in the Sculpture Garden. Here, we could experience first hand how humans transform geologic materials into art. Picasso and Rodin have been turned iron into bronze sculptures of animals and historic figures. And as we stood beside the Garden’s pleasant pond and fountain, we noted the monumental urban infrastructure known as the Catskill Mountains, which use gravity to send over 1 billion gallons of fresh and clean water to the City each day. Walkers stopped in the Garden to sketch and consider that, not only is the water displayed in the pools and filling our drinking bottles arriving here all the way from Upstate New York — it is a geologic material in its own right – as old as the Earth itself.
As we left the MoMA, we shifted focus to geologic futures in the making. We passed out portable “Anthropocene Viewers” (direct link to pdf) to the walkers. The Viewer invites users to experience their surroundings through the frame of the qualitatively new geologic epoch we now live in – one shaped by human impacts on planetary systems that are now acting back upon us.
We headed north on 6th Avenue to Central Park looking for Anthropocene-inflected realities along the way. In addition to humans, we documented chemically enhanced “fresh” flowers, NYC sightseeing buses displaying huge advertisements for vacations in the Caribbean, concrete sidewalks, urban density, global brands, foods imported from the other side of the world.
Our deep time walk concluded near the southern edge of Central Park, at what we’ve come to affectionately call the “Smithson Steps.” At a particularly prominent outcropping of Manhattan Schist (near 59th Street and 6th Avenue), in 1972, the artist Robert Smithson photographed two small steps carved into the 450 million year old rock by park designers. He used the photo in an essay for Artforum, published in 1973. The piece is entitled “Frederick Law Olmsted and The Dialectical Landscape.” In it, Smithson writes:
“Imagine yourself in Central Park one million years ago. You would be standing on a vast ice sheet, a 4,000-mile glacial wall, as much as 2,000 feet thick. Alone on the glacier, you would not sense its slow crushing, scraping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths, where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier dragged itself along.”
We never tire of this paragraph and the wonder it incites. There’s an incredible disjunct between the geologic imaginary of this piece and the urban reality that lives and breathes around the steps in 2015. What geologic futures are we in the midst of ushering into reality? What geologic futures exceed us? What evidence of the Anthropocene can be sensed here?
From within the park, the distracting din of the City is a bit more remote. Planes still pass over overhead, tourists still stroll en masse, surrounding buildings still loom. But there is a bit more space to actually take it all in. Standing atop the schist, we make contact with geology that signals the raw forces of geologic time. Walkers took a pause to inspect the groves carved into the schist by massive glaciers and try to picture, in the place of skyscrapers, the 1000 foot height of the ice that once towered over this spot.
At this last destination, we unfurled a banner version of our Geologic Time Scale. Unlike the official geologic timescale— ours does not end with the present as culmination. Instead, we locate the present as the middle of geologic time on Earth. Neither beginning nor end, the present is where geologic and human forces are in the midst of unfolding and enfolding. The right side of the banner represents past geologic events, the left depicts how the materials forged by those events are being enculturated by human activity in the present.
Our walks last weekend, and geologic viewer’s text and graphic design, suggest that all geologic time is contemporary; the materialities of every previous geologic epoch flow into the present-as-middle and give form to our daily lives. Here, these materials are continuously remixed by geologic forces and enculturated by human design as products, limits and affordances — with consequences that are geologic in effect.
unfurling the Geologic Time Viewer in Central Park, image courtesy Katie Holten
*special thanks to Alison Burstein and Sheetal Prajapati at MoMA.