FOP


Watershed
04.05.2015, 1:27 pm
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“People should realize we are in a new era,” Mr. Brown said at a news conference here on Wednesday, standing on a patch of brown and green grass that would normally be thick with snow at this time of year. “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.” —California Governor Jerry Brown as quoted by the New York Times

hotel_niptonThe bar at the Nipton Hotel, CA, FOP 2009

The news is remarkable. Last Wednesday, April Fool’s Day ironically, California residents were mandated to consume 25% less water for the first time in history. California is our most populous state. How will millions of Americans adapt to this change? Consuming a quarter less of anything seems rather daunting. Imagine consuming 25% less food or getting 25% less sleep. Is water different? If so, how excessively have we been consuming it? How much do we really need to survive — and then what of the rest? It seems residents in California could be some of the first American’s to signal back to the rest of us what’s actually necessary and what we’ve been borrowing from the future (that no longer exists).

Generally in the United States, we’re used to an abundance of resources and affordances. Much of our current collective lifestyle depends on not being distracted by considering the systems that reliably deliver our food, water, technologies, energy. Yet, last week’s mandate in California marks a turning point in our national mythology. We’ve been overreaching our habitat’s material limits.  Earth magnitude change and the physical consequences of our individual daily life practices can longer be denied.  And it’s we who will change and adapt in turn.

Water and energy are two major affordances Americans have been able to waste — abundantly — for decades if not centuries. We waste somewhere between 30-50% of the energy and water that flow through our buildings.  (Notably, 20% of our nation’s energy is generated from nuclear power. Eliminate such “leaking electricity” and we could, arguable, eliminate our need for nuclear power plants.)   At home, the devices we mindlessly leave plugged in continue to consume “vampire power” even when we’re not using them — amounting to an estimated 10% of household energy use.

2009-06-22 at 22-24-20

The drought in California didn’t start last Wednesday.  Though its severity has intensified over the last four years, it’s been building for years and things are likely to be getting drier for many more.  We are all systemically entwined with how well Californians manage this drought, we’ve all got a stake.  Half of all of fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the United States come from California, including up to 90% of foods such as broccoli, almonds, grapes, strawberries and tomatoes — many of which are water intensive.

What’s inspiring to us at FOP about this moment is that the actions being taken are not being framed in terms of stopping or reversing this particular drought.  Actions being taken now are about adapting to  changing conditions caused or intensified by the Anthropocene.

2009-06-23 at 12-34-23

If you have a crisis of meaning about what your life/dreams/work might be in this era of great change we think this moment offers a remarkable opportunity to make regular, daily life practices more intentional.  If we were to actually pay attention to that shimmering, increasingly elusive and essential liquid that we’ve been taking for granted, what other possible daily practices might flow into our imaginations?

Rising California lettuce with water gushing from a faucet in Brooklyn doesn’t feel like the act it was before the news of the mandated water restrictions broke last week. What makes this the “different era” proclaimed by Governor Brown is the fact that daily life is being lived differently by more and more individuals. It’s a necessary difference. It’s also the inspiring part of this unfinished story. We can pay attention to the consequences of our own daily acts — and there’s meaning in that. It’s even possible that we may find more meaning in our lives than before, as we perform simple acts of not taking for granted the systems that sustain us.

The backgrounds and foregrounds of our lives are starting to flip, and that flip is a part of larger realizations and practices to come. As Timothy Morton likes to say, “Giving up a fantasy is even harder than giving up a reality.”

cali_roadMojave Desert, outside Nipton, CA, FOP 2009



Look Only at the Movement arrives at the Nevada Museum of Art
03.25.2015, 7:21 pm
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composite_transcom inside TRANSCOM, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013

We’re pleased to announce that the last stop on Look Only at the Movement‘s multi-year relay among a number of exhibition locations is the Nevada Museum of Art. The project will open in the Museum’s Media Gallery on April 11 and will screen through July 26th, 2015. We’re happy to have the project shared with local audiences who are familiar with the long-term challenges of nuclear waste storage because of their proximity to the Yucca Mountain project in southern Nevada.

After launching in the fall of 2013 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center in NYC, the project has been on the move for 19 months. We’re grateful to the venues that served as hosts to the project in New York, Santa FeWendover and Nevada.  When we embarked on this project in 2012, we never imagined that the resulting exhibitions of the video would run longer than the nuclear waste transportation trucks that we documented and moved-with. After a “puff” of plutonium was released from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico in February 2014, the movement of nuclear waste to the Plant was suspended. For the latest update on WIPP’s closure, see the following link.

moabMoab, UT, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013

If you’re unable to make it to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno to see the project’s final appearance, good news! All are welcome to experience the project online and in full between now and March 31st).  Recess Art’s project, official office, is simultaneously screening video works, including Look Only at the Movement, in New York and Dresden galleries.



Matters of Conduct
03.07.2015, 10:12 am
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img_8837Seghal’s work being performed at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, image courtesy aformofwarning.com

It was her disarming eye contact that brought me to tears. Or maybe it was her beautiful voice, rolling up and off the walls around me. She was wearing the uniform of a gallery attendant and she had her back to me now. When she turned, she looked me directly in the eyes and held steady. Her smile was sincere and she looked as though she was empathizing with how tired and disoriented I felt. Her voice was clear and measured when she stopped singing to state the title of the work. It sounded as if we were in the middle of a conversation, but we were total strangers and I hadn’t spoken a word. I was overcome with an inexplicable constellation of emotions. She was the first person to look me directly in the eyes for many days.  And in some ways, it made sense. Of course someone might want to sing in such a beautiful space — muted natural light was filtering down from skylights above, pristine white walls set-off pastel masterpieces hanging throughout the room. But the words she sang unraveled any sense of normalcy, “This is propaganda…This is propaganda.”

I had come here specifically to experience the “situations” of artist Tino Seghal, whose work is being staged at the Stedelijk Museum for 365 days (through December 2015), but the encounter had moved me much more than I had expected.

Another visitor walked into the gallery. She turned to face the wall again and started singing the same phrase before turning back to address the new visitor directly with the title of the work. I stumbled into the next gallery.

Critics have called Seghal’s works “constructed situations.” Some have declared him an architect of interaction. Though highly designed, these exchanges also have the potential “to derail” at any moment depending on how the individuals engaged decide to navigate their “situation.”

I realized, with delight, that there were “triggers” to several of the works I experienced.  They “began” either when a visitor simply arrived in a space or looked someone else directly in the eye. It had taken me a couple of attempts to discover where the “work” was in an adjacent space. Upon entering that gallery for the third time, I made eye contact with a “guard.” He immediately broke into an easy smile and started swinging his arms like propellers. Then, he stated the name of the work and came to a rest. The playfulness made me laugh.

These “triggers” left a lasting impression. Not only did they bring me into the present with an active awareness of the situation, they also made me realize how potent the act of initiating communication can be. They also left me wondering what might be squandered in habits of distraction. In these works, fleeting exchanges between strangers become highly charged, co-created and radically open. I couldn’t help but wonder how these practices might translate outside the gallery in public space.

When I left the museum and went back out on the street, I realized I was now actively looking for other eyes to meet.  Who else might be part of this mysterious game? Who else might want to set a series of interactions into motion together? Who else, might just want to acknowledge, together, that we were both here — now?

No one else met my eyes. Instead, people went about their business, enjoying the sunny day.

This made me realize what a gift the work of the singing guard had been. Her intentional gaze was more than just a kind acknowledgment when I was feeling particularly jet-lagged. It wasn’t really about me at all, and yet it was. I had experienced her intentional address as art and I had participated in it. Leading up to the encounter was the reason I was  in Amsterdam at all:  I had just participated in a highly mediated event (“The Geologic Imagination” Sonic Acts 2015).  It had been a wonderful experience. And though anyone in the world with internet access could have experienced the work/performance I had shared in real-time, after experiencing Seghal, I wondered how those tuning in remotely had experienced what I shared.

The days prior had certainly heightened the power of the very simple, analog, human to human experience that took place when I was paired briefly with another human in Seghal’s work.  There had been an accountability for “consuming”  and creating art — and our time — with one another.  It demanded an aware presence of our fleeting relationality.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York described Seghal’s work in 2010:

“The fact that Sehgal’s works are produced in this way elicits a different kind of viewer: a visitor is no longer only a passive spectator, but one who bears a responsibility to shape and at times to even contribute to the actual realization of the piece. The work may ask visitors what they think, but, more importantly, it underscores an individual’s own agency in the museum environment. Regardless of whether they call for direct action or address the viewer in a more subtle sense, Sehgal’s works always evoke questions of responsibility within an interpersonal relationship.”

As we all navigate the uncertainties of the Anthropocene, how we conduct ourselves in the world, towards the unknown and especially towards one another, will be of great consequence.  As we’ve written recently, we sense the need to practice how we might meet these uncertainties. Seghal’s work is a fantastic test case that offers inspiration. By drawing attention to how we conduct ourselves in the world and with one another, what might we make from here?  And, how rare to experience art that doesn’t rely upon (or overtly critique) the massive networks of media, resources and systems that distract us from sensing the severity of what is now afoot?

“There’s something deeply optimistic in his work,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist of Sehgal, “It believes in change, in the production of reality, and that engagement produces consequences.”

How might we write/design/create new prompts for acknowledging the strangeness of our very strange moment?  How might we co-exist together, within unscripted possibilities, and with a sense of sincerity?



Yes And, Thinking in an Emergency
02.01.2015, 4:04 pm
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7e6cc741ac7023f09db4817f3afa673b-1Still from “Enjô” (炎上 /Conflagration), 1958. Directed by Kon Ichikawa, adapted from Yukio Mishima’s novel, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.”

“Overstimulated!” These were the words one of us blurted out in response to our teacher Jen Oleniczak, when she asked how we felt after the last exercise. We had been loudly exclaiming nonsensical two-word phrases at one another in fast repetition. These phrases had been spontaneously generated in the moment, based on two random letters of the alphabet. As soon as one partner had invented a phrase, meaningless and random as it may be, the other had to somehow manage to “perform it” (think A and P = “Aardvark Parading”). While doing our best to “aardvark parade” we simultaneously had to invent a follow-up phrase (i.e. “Acting Pretty” etc. etc.) for our partner to then perform.

Improv for Professionals” class at the Brooklyn Brainery was smudge/FOP’s first encounter with formal improvisational training. The two-hour class passed incredibly fast, inciting only minor feelings of trepidation.  Our instructor’s careful facilitation and silliness lightened the mood. After about ten minutes, we took Jen’s advice and stopped thinking about how ridiculous we looked and sounded.  We surrendered to the context, and attempted to be present and responsive to the highly unpredictable prompts hurtled our way.

This small Brooklyn classroom with a small group of ten was an ideal environment for suspending control and testing out what it’s actually like to try and not anticipate what’s coming next — to try to simply meet what’s next as it comes. It was amazing to realize that so many of our finely honed skills sets did not apply in this context. You can’t think forward, because it’s going to come from someone/somewhere else who hasn’t yet thought/unleashed it. They don’t even know what’s coming. Yet, you have to respond to what arises even when it’s from somewhere no one is expecting — and not what you expect or want it to be. This is the challenging and rich potential of improv. In these moments, you’re condemned (liberated?) to interconnectedness, as improv is inherently relational.  No action or word stands alone.  You must listen closely and riff off one another. Intentional communication is core to improv (and much more, as Jen shares eloquently in her TedxCortland presentation). Improv demands you not isolate yourself, it’s impossible. There’s a pact at the core of the process — you’re never in it alone.  The process is, essentially, a network.  The phrase, “yes, and” summarizes a technique for generating more exchange, play, and responsiveness.  Improv requires that you build off of what just happened, rather than go your own way with it. Together, we keep the “ball” up, moving, flowing, rather than having it settle into any one person’s trajectory. More simply, this form of serious play boils down to the question:  how can we support each other in looking less stupid?  With everyone watching everyone else’s back, ready to swoop in and take up the improvisation burden when it starts to sag to the floor, each player can actually inhabit the moment more fully.  Each can pay better attention to the other players, and to the unfolding context.  Paradoxically, bringing more personal energy to “emergency” (just now emerging) contexts demands that we be less self-absorbed.

As we surrendered to the pace of improv, we found ourselves doing/saying/moving in ways that aren’t necessarily graceful nor intelligent, and that we certainly didn’t expect from ourselves.  And yet, they arose.  Something did step into the breach between sensation and making sense.  The “not thinking” might fail to “get things right” (or make sense), but in the process, we enacted capacities we have to meet the chaos of changing circumstances.  And sometimes we did that against the odds of who we think ourselves to be.

smudge/FOP attended this course as part of an ongoing, informal project we’re calling “skill sets for navigating the Anthropocene.”  We’re at a place of reassessment in our studio work. After a decade of churning out a great deal of text-based, information and research projects, we sense the necessity of taking a different tack — one that takes us deeper into practices.  Making a distinction between living in the Anthropocene and making work “about it” (as if it were somewhere else or at some other time) is no longer possible. This has made us suspect that the skills sets we “need now” are those that enable us to work within the psychological and philosophical domains as much as they enable us to work within art and design.  What might we do as artists|humans, to find ways to frame the physical and psychological challenges of the Anthropocene while inhabiting them, and without tipping into despair?  And how might we account for our place within the Anthropocene, for the fact, as Timothy Morton puts it, “It never stops sticking to you, no matter where you move on Earth. How can we account for this?”  The questions of how to account for “it,” how to reckon ourselves with it, how to pay it our attention bring us up against the realization that, as of yet, we do not have the skills to act differently enough in/as the Anthropocene — especially in ways that would feel artful.

We’re in our early stages of “skill gathering.” In addition to improv, we attended disaster preparedness training and were introduced to sitting zazen on New Year’s Eve.  We are also rethinking the activities and attitudes that compose our own daily life practices. We’re not Buddhists, actors, or Emergency Management personnel.  But we suspect that one response being called for by the Anthropocene is a remixing of habitual actions.  And a loosening of fixed senses of identity.

The Anthropocene is certainly some kind of “emergency,” however slow moving or distant it might appear in some (temporarily fortunate) locales. Perhaps this is why Elaine Scarry’s important book, Thinking in an Emergency, came to mind during our improv class.  In it, she shows how “clear thinking and rapid action are not oppositional.” And she argues that the ability to do both — to  think in the midst of overstimulation or rapid action — doesn’t just happen. You have to practice it.  As Scarry states, “this book will … set before the reader four concrete instances of emergency preparation that depend, for their essential design, on the willful instilling of deeply formed habits in advance of the catastrophe [our emphasis]… It is not the case that ordinary life is habitual and emergency life is non habitual. Both coherent and incoherent emergency actions appear to have their source in habit. The habits that suddenly surface may have been culturally received without self-consciously aspiring to acquire them.” (p.10/16)

Thinking in an emergency requires us to get more comfortable with meeting the unknown, as a matter of habit. “The world is changing more quickly than we can change” (Scarry p. 10).  How can we reinvent daily habits in ways that make us able to think within and make something of this emergency?

Tim Morton writes, “Improvisation is adaptation plus awareness … there’s something contemplative about the ecological thought. When you think about adaptation, it is like music that listens to itself. This form of awareness foreshadows a future society in which introversion and passivity have a key role to play” (p.109). Morton goes on to quote Miles Davis, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”  In free jazz, Morton says, “all instruments depend on the ‘environment’ of ‘unintention’ around them. The music listens to itself … Because of this listening quality, free jazz can be highly contemplative” (The Ecological Thought, p.109). Improv is like meditation in its attention to the moment of unfolding.

Morton again, “There is global warming; there is an ecological emergency…the melting world induces panic. This is a problem, philosophically and otherwise. Again, it’s a paradox. While we absolutely have complete responsibility for global warming and must act now to curb emissions, we are also faced with various fantasies about “acting now” … There is an ideological injunction to act “Now!” while humanists are tasked with slowing down, using our minds to find out what all this means … the injunction to act now is ultimately based on preserving a Nature that we are finding out never existed” (p.118).

Reading Morton and Scarry, we’ve begun to imagine that perhaps what we need are monk-like emergency personnel, who like to play jazz.  Maybe that’s who we are becoming.  Or maybe we need to embody such hybrid identities and skills when we improv our way through the next 30 years.  It’s hard to say, but all of this makes us think we’ve got a lot of practices to invent and a lot of practicing to do.

Last weekend we had the opportunity to share some of these thoughts at a “Sunday Salon” focused on the Anthropocene (at the home of friends).  What proved most inspiring about the event was the experience of sitting down with others who otherwise would have been thinking about the Anthropocene at their own homes in relative isolation on a Sunday afternoon. We found this to be a resilient group. People were willing to channel their “leisure” hours towards the Anthropocene. We saw the event as another form of practice for navigating the Anthropocene.  Or at least, as another activity of “skill set” building for turning our daily lives and hours towards it. Instead of thinking alone, we were able to think together for two and a half hours, share food, and arrive at more questions than answers.  This might be what it means to pause and listen to and as the Anthropocene.  Instead of “presenting” our work to one another, we were posing a great number of open questions to each other about how to practice daily life differently enough.



Unleash the Geologic Imagination
01.23.2015, 1:48 pm
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sonic

smudge/FOP is honored to be one of the presenters at the upcoming Sonic Acts Festival in Amsterdam.  The theme of the 2015 festival is “The Geologic Imagination”:

Inspired by geosciences, this edition of the Sonic Acts Festival zooms in on planet Earth through the theme The Geologic Imagination. Human activity has irreversibly changed the composition of the atmosphere, the oceans, and even the Earth’s crust. Humanity has become a geological force. The way we see the world, how we understand the systems and processes of nature, and our intentions and interactions with the planet are central to The Geologic Imagination. How do science and art document and portray the changes and transformations that occur on a geological scale? How can we experience these changes and transformations? Sonic Acts invites artists and theorists to tap into their ‘geologic imagination’ and present the images, sounds and ideas that it generates.

We will share work at the conference portion of the Festival, described as a four day event where, “artists, scientists and writers discuss The Geologic Imagination, explore the radical transformations to our world, and what it means to live in the Anthropocene.” We are excited to be joining speakers such as Timothy Morton, Graham Harman and Alan Weisman.  In addition to the conference, the Festival includes concerts, performances, a field trip and also a publication. The Geologic Imagination book includes work by humans whom we massively respect, including Matt Coolidge and contributions related to the Sonic Acts Dark Ecology project (which runs through 2016) in the border zone of northern Norway and Russia.

Tickets and full program details are available on the Sonic Acts website.

The frame Sonic Acts has set-up for those gathering in Amsterdam is encouraging.  Artists, writers, theorists, musicians, scientists and a wide-array of hybrid practitioners are showing up to acknowledge planetary changes and activate imaginations at the scale of the geologic.  Most likely, those attending and presenting are beginning to “turn into the Anthropocene” with eyes wide open (or as open as they can be at this point).  We’ll look to presenters and audiences for intuitions, motives, and processes capable of re-tuning our minds and spirits to meet and engage the realities we are enmeshed within.

_____

And closer to home, we invite those interested to share a geologically-inflected afternoon with us in April, courtesy of the MoMA, New York.  On Saturday, April 25th we’ll lead a walking tour in Manhattan called, “Uncovering Deep Time in Midtown:”

Spend an afternoon on a New York City walking tour with the artist collaborative smudge studio (Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse). While much of this city’s architecture and infrastructure depends upon geologic materials that took millennia to form, most humans have little cultural awareness of this reality today. During this walk, participants are invited to experience and consider for themselves the geologic forces and flows that give form and foundation to New York City. After considering the geologic materials embedded within everyday life here, we will consider deep futures in the making and how city dwellers might inhabit and creatively navigate current planetary changes. The walk pauses at three sites where participants will be invited to conduct on-site research through sketching and by accessing relevant information on their mobile phones. At each stop, smudge studio will offer a provocation to use art and design as “aesthetic prostheses” for considering New York City as an aperture onto deep time. The walk covers a distance of approximately two miles and includes visits to Central Park and Rockefeller Center. Each participant will receive a complimentary copy of smudge studio’s Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York (2012).



Drawing Near
01.06.2015, 3:59 pm
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2015front70° N, Steilneset Memorial, Vardø, Norway, smudge studio 2014

FOP was launched on January 1st, 002010 and recently turned five. Thanks to all those who keep returning to this site. We’ve taken up a wide range of ideas related to geologic time on this blog over the past half decade.  The “geologic” certainly wasn’t trendy ten years ago when smudge studio began. The surge of attraction to the geologic groundings of human and planetary life, and now to the idea of the Anthropocene, is a promising signal that perceptions are in motion and humans around the world are newly curious regarding their entanglement with planetary forces.

In March of 2013, on the second anniversary of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, we wrote a post entitled, “The Next Five Years.”  In it, we outlined an updated frame for our work and tried to anticipate new, Anthropocene-related related realities that might emerge between 2013 and 2018 :

“…during the next five years, humans will grasp the speed, scale, and material realities of planetary change events more concretely.  Arguably, thoughts, dreams, actions and creative gestures that we humans make in response to our first inklings and shared experiences of Anthropocene events will set the stage for their potential consequences.”

Over the past four months, interest and awareness regarding planetary change has burgeoned in media, art, activist, and academic circles.  The spirited dynamism (pdf) of efforts to grasp, in words and art, the material realities now ramifying have generated vibrant discussions that leap from reports of scientific evidence to witnessing to persuasion to philosophical reflections upon the acceleration of constant, and uneven distributed global change.  Humans are no longer aiming to “stop” global warming.  We are now grappling with making the transition into coexisting with unknowable future(s) and their ever open, unanswerable questions.

Many wildcards will be revealed, invented, discovered and relearned as various species meet unanticipated futures.  On the cusp of 2015, we sense an absence in the frame we offered a year and a half ago that now seems essential to add.  Namely,  the vital importance of cultivating a capacity within ourselves, as individuals, to be with and of the changes that are here and on their way.  It seems more essential than ever for humans to actively draw near to, perhaps even welcome into daily life, the reality of continuous change.  And to do this not through consuming news headlines, thematic conferences, or exhibitions addressing the Anthropocene.  But rather, to cultivate this capacity through intentional practices that actually live the fact that what we (Western, developed cultures in particular) have pushed away from  our awareness and attention (material realities of human-made earth-magnitude geologic change) are actually right here and already with/in us — and we, within them.

As a studio, we’ve spent the better part of a decade to come to know this for ourselves in meaningful ways.  And it’s only been through designing practices to meet and acknowledge our own material limits that we’ve really come to know more intimately the materialities of the “away from awareness and attention” that, actually, are right here.  The process of going “there” has proven effective for these realizations.  It has set up experiences and field research that invited the world to pass through us  as we passed through it.  We first learned this process from the Center for Land Use Interpretation.  Venturing outside of the habitual pathways, looking at and from overlooked “places” (which can be right in front of you, or can be you yourself), not only have we been humbled as humans — we’ve also learned how flimsy assumptions about the world are when they are human-centered.  From “there,” the edge of our driveway, the rim of a massive copper mine, sites where nuclear bombs have been detonated, or making tea at 70° North or passing trucks transporting transuranic waste, we have performed deliberate pauses.  Stopping at “edges,” we have been rewarded with involuntary, poignant sensations of wonder and awe at our enmeshment within material complexities.  There are no edges at all.  We are within this “air,” “land,” “water,” “waste” as much as they are within us.

In coming months, we humans will be fast learning much more about how this planet is not all about us. The blunt lessons will be unstoppable. Being able to real-ly feel our exposure to forces beyond us, letting it meaningfully instruct our thoughts and actions rather than responding from the defensive, might assist us in redirecting or tempering how and what comes next.

As FOP/smudge, we’ve chosen to experiment with active, inner space as the next “away,” or “(non-)edge.”   We will look to it for assistance in meeting the speed and magnitude of incoming, life-altering material realities.  The task of relaying near-literal images and words from within the mesh will be task enough for now.

Intentionally designing lives made up of practices for being fully present in and as the wildly unpredictable material realities that are now arriving.  This is art enough.

Here’s to the wild turn that is becoming 002015.



Redirecting Focus
12.13.2014, 5:10 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

13762000333_0a157fc40f_zFlooding in the UK (February 2014) cc image: UK Ministry of Defence

All of our basic institutions, especially those of higher education and art/design, need to stop in their tracks and redirect/rededicate themselves.  Because, as Rebecca Solnit put it in the NYT Magazine recently:

“Climate change is everything, a story and a calamity bigger than any other. It’s the whole planet for the whole foreseeable future, the entire atmosphere, all the oceans, the poles; it’s weather and crop failure and famine and tropical diseases heading north and desertification and the uncertain fate of a great majority of species on earth.”

The professional and personal futures that we have been imagining for ourselves, our students, clients and families, are no longer viable.  It’s becoming increasingly impossible for us to look another human in the eye and talk to them as if those imagined futures were viable.  Because, an entirely different/alter future is already here:

“Even with a deal to stop the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists warn, the world will become increasingly unpleasant. Without a deal, they say, the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans.”

“The problem is that climate experts say it almost certainly will not happen fast enough. A November report by the United Nations Environment Program concluded that in order to avoid the 3.6 degree increase, global emissions must peak within the next 10 years, going down to half of current levels by midcentury.”

“The objective now, negotiators say, is to stave off atmospheric temperature increases of 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century; at that point, they say, the planet could become increasingly uninhabitable.

If our job as artists, designers and educators is, in part, to prepare students and publics for the future, it seems that we must now prepare them to live and work on an “increasingly unpleasant,” perhaps “eventually uninhabitable” planet.  The Coursera Edinburgh-authored class on e-learning comes close to addressing this prospect, even if unwittingly.  It invites us to consider the interplay between media technology and education at a time when Western beliefs about what it means to be human are unraveling, in part, because of the loss of our habitat and because of our species’ self-loathing over our role in that loss.

The days of having the luxury to discuss and enact anything other than how to triage our responses to social, economic, environmental, ethical, and psychological emergencies at global scale are fast coming to an end.  Very likely, we’re in the last months of being able to conduct anything close to business as usual in higher education, or any other major social institution.

Wouldn’t it be prudent (maybe even psychologically, aesthetically, ethically, and educationally rewarding) to use the luxury we temporarily enjoy as artists and academics in New York City to turn toward and begin to teach and think in relation to “the story — the calamity that is bigger than any other”?   Where else to locate our teaching and knowledge production, than within the actual material conditions of contemporary life?  Those conditions are fast rendering concepts and ideals such as “sustainability,” “eco-friendly,” “saving the Earth,” and “climate justice” not only quaint but dangerously distracting.

As fields of study and practice, Art, Design and Media Studies know the means, powers, and desires of distraction.  They are well equipped to redirect attention to the story “that is everything … the calamity that is bigger than any other.”  Institutions and groups that support and benefit from makers and teachers of anything need to redirect themselves away from legacy knowledges and practices that distract us from that story.  We need to rededicate ourselves toward new curricula, pedagogies, modes of attention and imagination that begin with “the story that is everything … the calamity that is bigger than any other.” And then, we need to employ makers and teachers to use their skills and devices of attraction toward becoming contemporaneous with our current best guesses about what constitutes “the whole planet” and its “whole foreseeable future.”




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