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Flooding 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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dust storm near the Nevada Test Site, smudge studio 2009
If you haven’t heard Radiolab’s recent episode mapping the transformative journey of theorist/philosopher/teacher Eugene Thacker’s book, In the Dust of the Planet through the vagaries of popular culture, here’s the link.
The book, In the Dust of this Planet, is a heady endeavor taking up concepts and expressions of nihilism in culture (horror films, black metal etc.). As the promo page at ZERO Books explains, Thacker’s work takes up, “those moments when philosophical thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own existence.”
We were captivated by the Radiolab program on many levels, but perhaps most by the provocation at about two to three minutes into the podcast. There, the program introduces what Friedrich Nietzsche suggested might be the most “difficult” thoughts: that the world around us doesn’t care about us, our existence might an “accident,” there “is no order to the cosmos,” therefore our lives are meaningless, making reality a “horror.”
Around minute 15, the Radiolab piece references contemporary planetary realities. The host, Jad Abumrad, suggests that there is an “uncomfortable shift” unfolding in how we think about climate change. It’s a shift from prevention into adaptation. A scientist on the program from the ICPP (PDF of recent report) admits that we’re now at the stage of not being able to stop it, and instead we need to “admit some degree of failure.” He continues to say that we are now “bending over backward to find ways to be optimistic,”but “the kinds of actions needed are so heroic that we aren’t going to see them on this planet.” The program also points out that 76% of people over 18 years old aren’t “confident that the future will be brighter than the past.”
We pressed “pause” around this time and made, what was for us, a conceptual leap. Based on what we had just heard, it seemed possible that many people have become so unmotivated to accept and act in response to the reality of climate change because doing so requires us to “hold the thought” that the planet is actually indifferent to our existence.
Nietzsche’s most horrific thoughts might be Eastern philosophy’s most inviting. We still have time and context for re-thinking myths of human-centered dominance perpetuated by Western philosophy. Given the geologic reality that the planet isn’t only for or about us, the fact that we are still here could be viewed as a bit of miracle. Our presence on Earth, as one evolutionary outcome of this planet’s volatile history, is a wildcard of sorts. Rather than making life seem meaningless, the precarious wildness of our very existence invites us to meet the questions and challenges of the Anthropocene by playing the wild potential we hold.
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“With severe weather events becoming more frequent and more extreme, it is more important than ever that New Yorkers are prepared for disasters and know what to do in an emergency.” – Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, 2014 State of the State Address
from the Citizens Preparedness Corps training session at FIT on October 15, 2014
Last month FOP attended a New York State Citizen Preparedness Corps training session at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Our attendance resulted from both personal interest and from our ongoing research into how we might enact practices to meet changing planetary realities of the Anthropocene.
Local city council members introduced the evening’s program which was then run by members of the National Guard, creating a hands-on atmosphere. The primary message was: “it’s not a question of if, but when” the next event (storm, disaster or nuclear accident) will occur. Individual readiness was strongly encouraged in recognition of the fact that New York City systems and rescue workers in place to help will likely become overwhelmed.
A couple of years ago, this program’s theme would have appeared somewhat “apocalyptic” to us. But after Hurricane Sandy and the stream of less than encouraging headlines out of the IPCC, its seems we’ve traded in Hollywood projections of fictional disasters for the actualities of contemporary reality. What practices are meaningful to enact in response? How might we “hold the thought” that it’s becoming increasingly likely that we will have to enact some of the preparedness scenarios we were offered—and hold that thought without feeling depleted? These are ongoing questions we (FOP/smudge) consider on a regular basis.
Though we appreciate the intentions of the anticipatory actions that the Citizens Corp invites, we question the idea of preparedness itself. Some of the first words spoken at the gathering directed us toward the imporance of being “prepared in the case of unforeseen circumstances.” To us, this seems more than a little contradictory. The dictionary defines “prepared” as a state of being “properly expectant, organized and equipped.” The auditorium was packed, no doubt in part because of the promise of a really nice backpack jammed full of affordances for being better equipped during the next event (batteries, vacuum packed food, flashlight, radio etc.). But it’s hard to imagine how we might achieve a state of being “properly expectant” and organized for so much of what is to come. It seems acceptance of this difficulty might be the first step in rethinking how the idea and practice of preparedness itself needs to be updated to meet newly emerging realities. We have a long way to go as a culture to be able to let our responses to this difficulty breathe and take shape. Perhaps in addition to many gallons of water stowed under the bed, we need training in meeting the unexpected (improv, surfing), or perhaps in skills of oral storytelling so we can pass the hours without electricity more meaningfully. There is a great deal of uncertainty circulating, so much so that preparation itself can seem futile. Still, the idea of safety and security is becoming increasingly valuable as more and more conversations shift from aiming to “stop” global warming to aiming to “adapt” to various scenarios in which, in the relatively near future, the planet is between 2-4 degrees warmer than today. How might we update ideas and actions of preparedness for this future?
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The project had humble beginnings. Our primary intention was to invite a small group of hybrid artist/practitioner colleagues into an experimental context. They would be colleagues whose work we respected for how it addressed the challenges of the Anthropocene (ranging from work on the proliferation of plastic to extinction of species, climate chaos, the “thing” power of food, what it means to find one’s life work in the Anthropocene, imagining deep time, etc.).
Instead of talking about our work, sharing our latest projects, or assembling together for the purpose of creating “change,” we would simply pause together. For an hour and a half we would offer our guests traditional Japanese matcha tea and sweets (higashi) in simple acknowledgment of, and gratitude towards, the fortitude they show by turning their lives and work toward instead of away from the complexities of planetary realities in the Anthropocene.
We chose higashi as our medium for this event because they are a tiny, dry confectionary that are materially sturdy enough to travel the nearly 7,000 miles from Kyoto, Japan. For centuries, Japanese sweets such as higashi have accompanied matcha tea at traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The offering and eating of the sweets inaugurates a point of pause and contemplation, and enacts generosity and gratitude shared among guests.
Notably, Japanese craftsmen have refined the designs of traditional higashi over hundreds of years to translate daily experiences of seasonal variation into edible forms. The designs of the sweets (autumn leaves, spring cherry blossoms, grains of rice) invite guests to psychologically be with and move with seasonal change as it unfolds.
However, the sweets we would offer in our project would not be traditional higashi.
Higashi for the Anthropocene would be designed to suggest that the daily seasonal variations we are now experiencing in the Anthropocene constitute a “fifth season.” This fifth season is marked by strange weather whose unseasonable events increasingly cut through, interrupt, and scramble the familiar weather events of the “traditional” four seasons. Higashi for the Anthropocene would invite traditional tea sweets to intentionally turn, like us, towards the Anthropocene. They would be designed to serve as apertures onto the Anthropocene. We would use aspects of their color, form, and symbols to center our focus on the material and climate realities of the Anthropocene. But at the same time, we would use higashi’s association with the hospitality, calmness, sweetness, and pleasures of the Japanese tea ceremony to turn us away from the all too readily available narratives about the Anthropocene. The event would be designed to offer something other than steeping ourselves in the currently hyper-mediated sentiments such as despair, guilt, or heroism.
To materialize these intentions in the form of higashi for the Anthropocene, we asked Kagizen Yoshifusa, a 300-year old confectionary shop in Kyōto, and Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo) to collaborate with us. Together, we would use the medium of higashi to reimagine traditional seasonal designs and make them capable of acknowledging the now emerging, unseasonable fifth season.
We invited a special venue to support the gathering: Kajitsu restaurant. Kajitsu specializes in shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian meals). It serves New York City as much as a cultural institution as it does a restaurant. Their seasonally attuned menus change monthly, and their special events celebrate centuries-old Japanese crafts and holidays which are often inspired by the seasons.
As smudge studio, we sensed an urgency to invent new ways to inhabit the Anthropocene in our daily lives. We wanted to see if Higashi for the Anthropocene might prove to be an event that we could draw upon for inspiration and resiliency in coming months. We suspect it might be the first of many practices we will invent in the near future — practices we design to help us (and maybe others) “hold the thought” of the Anthropocene as our contemporary condition, but do so without exhausting or depleting us.
Today, post-event, we believe that the project was a “success” in those ways. We saw in our guests a palpable affirmation of the necessity of the project’s gestures, and we sensed sincere appreciation of attempts to find ways to live within emerging material realities, and in new ways.
We are grateful for our guests’ responsiveness and willingness to meet us in this experimental space; to momentarily re-direct their time towards the explorations we made together through Higashi for the Anthropocene; and to meet us — even on a Saturday afternoon — once again, within the Anthropocene.
traditional autumn higashi, made by Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto), “spring” cherry blossom higashi made out of season for the project, by Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo)
For our guests, the story of how the ideas and intentions for this project ultimately took the material form of sugary sweets and were delivered to us in New York further qualified the candies as higashi of and for the Anthropocene. Silently embedded within the bodies of the higashi themselves, and now within the guests who consumed them, are tales and journeys that also bespeak the Anthropocene. It took eleven weeks to bring Higashi for the Anthropocene into the world. Some aspects of their journey could be anticipated (such as the comedy and tragedy of Brooklyn international delivery). Others, not.
When you look at Higashi for the Anthropocene, it’s easy to notice that they appear a little rough-hewn. They co-exist awkwardly alongside traditional higashi whose forms and executions have been perfected over centuries. But the candies/sculptures/objects in/of the Anthropocene were born of limits — limits of language, time, Anthropocene weather, international logistics and sugar itself. A 14-hour time difference between New York and Kyoto ensured that all email communication for the project took place at times felt to be too early or too late in the day for messages to be meaningfully composed or absorbed. Our inability to communicate in grammatically correct Japanese greatly influenced the parameters of the project and its process. There were countless attempts to find the simplest and most direct ways to describe and communicate elusive qualities and sensations of the Anthropocene, so that the geologic epoch could then be abstracted into sugar form. Even in English, we don’t have language that adequately captures the difference of the Anthropocene or that describes unfamiliar sensations of its unseasonable qualities. But this project led us to realize that striving or waiting for such language is not actually viable. There isn’t time, and tasks are too urgent. Many design expectations had to be let go of, and simultaneously, many improvised alternatives had to be spoken and drawn before they could be enacted. As we forged ahead, We were humbled to realize that it is a substantial task to ask anyone, and any practice — especially those that have been preserved and refined over centuries — to break their form for the purpose of turning towards/into the Anthropocene.
These tiny fragile candies have a carbon footprint of 7,000+ miles. Their path towards the table at Kajitsu passed through the 19th and largest typhoon to affect Japan this year. They are poignant material traces of moments of reinvention, re-assessment and reframing within unfolding Anthropocene events themselves. Perhaps what is most telling about this project as a gesture of acknowledgement toward the Anthropocene, is that these candies were brought into being by a host of unrelated people who worked across great distance and differences to address something none of us fully understood. As limits were reached, the project did not collapse, but reshaped itself to what became possible when we turned at those limits and proceeded with a difference. The outcomes were generative failures of translation and intention. They were then gifted to, and consumed by, a bold and creative group of humans who are daring to turn into the Anthropocene.
Higashi for the Anthropocene, designs by Jamie Kruse, produced by Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto)
Higashi for the Anthropocene, Kajitsu restaurant, October 25, 2014
Higashi for the Anthropocene, Kajitsu restaurant, October 25, 2014
Please see smudge studio project page for details on the higashi designs.
** Sincere gratitude to Valerie Triggs and Michele Sorensen for project support.
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poster spotted on a Manhattan bound Q train in early October
It was a dismal reality-check to spot this poster (above) on a Q train last week. Given the complexities of people and motivations that resulted in the People’s Climate March last month, this poster felt like just another missed opportunity to communicate something vitally “else” to the millions of people who flow through New York City’s transit system. It could be read as a bit of human self-sabotage: the perpetuation of the (at least American) myth that despite the slogan of the march (“this changes everything“), we can still go to brunch, walk the dog, and be entertained in the afternoon as we contribute to “sav[ing] everything we love” simply by being physically (though not psychologically) present for an hour or two of marching.
So, here’s to embarking into new territory.
Over the next few months, via this blog, we’ll send occasional signals of our attempts to live and enact a literal “difference.” Signals will come from within (rather than describing or representing) projects/events in which we take-up new forms of performative research and applied aesthetics — enacted through intentionally designed practices. These could range from daily life practices, new language/communication skills-building, inhabitation practices, and food production/consumption. We envision events in which we create contexts where we, and sometimes others, can co-exist with unfolding, planetary material realities that are “changing everything” in ways that don’t take us “out” of those realities, and that sturdy rather than drain us. We’re most interested in practices that make it possible, without overexposure to hyper-mediated fear messages or debilitating narratives of guilt, to hold the thought that what is happening to the human habitat “changes everything,” and to accept that these massive changes as real.
We made a nascent attempt at one such practice in Truro, MA two weeks ago (“Renga for the Fifth Season”). From here, we hope to go deeper with how to set up and live through such practices, and what such gestures might mean. This is likely to be a long-term commitment. We don’t know where they might take us, but we make these gestures as a refusal to wait for or expect governments to “solve” or “fix” the “problems” or to “save” the planet (or us)—and we make them as a means to actualize our intentions to turn daily life into a sustained practice of inhabiting change itself.
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no proper vantage
I look to weather.com
can the app explain
why I cannot read the sky
from within the fifth season?
my ears must turn to find you
no use, you call from every
mountain as you search for your
spring summer autumn winter
the silhouette of Corn Hill
the mounds of Fresh Kills.
what colors the grasses that
spring from the City’s navel?
says the New York Times today:
east coast exodus.
Traveling today’s gentle tide
with new appreciation
no matter our doings here
sun keeps its own course.
from the ground, a growing sense:
balance is a distant star.
Renga for the Fifth Season | Cartography Primer No 2
Saturday, September 27, 2014
2pm | 18 Phats Valley Road, Truro, MA
Cartography Primer is a series of workshops that will investigate the Pamet Marsh area through mapping and exploratory exercises. Cartography Primer No 2 will take place Saturday, September 27th at 2pm, at Phats Valley Residency in Truro, MA and will be led by artists-in-residence Oliver Kellhammer and smudge studio.
“The sun and the moon are eternal voyagers; the years that come and go are travelers too. For those whose lives float away on boats, for those who greet old age with hands clasping the lead ropes of horses, travel is life, travel is home.”
—From Narrow Road to Interior, Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉), translated by Helen Craig MCCullough
In the spring of 1689, Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō set out on a five-month journey in Japan. His experiences are documented in his book, Narrow Road to the Interior, also known as The Narrow Road to the Deep North. While traveling, Bashō drew upon and further developed a 500-year old practice of collaborative haiku poetry called renga. Bashō’s style of renga included juxtapositions of place, events and allusions to literary, historic and mythic sources. Renga, in its most basic form, is recognized as being inherently collaborate (linked verses by multiple authors build upon each other’s words), inspired by the environmental and social contexts of the moment (such as what trees are in bloom, what stage the moon is in, and who is present at the time of the renga writing “party”), and responsive to the impermanence of the moment.
On Saturday, September 27th, artists-in-residence Oliver Kellhammer and smudge studio will practice a contemporary translation of Bashō’s collaborate, time-based poetic form and journey-based practice for Cartography Primer No. 2. They will use that translation to produce a collaborative, renga-inspired work that speaks to the impermanence and continuous renewal of “place” and daily life: the change that makes the world.
Today a renga-like creative practice that responds to the unfolding contexts of its own production would involve many social and environmental conditions unknown to Basho. Indeed, the material conditions of daily life in 2014 are barely understood by those of us who are living them.
For our renga-inspired event, we will invite participants to attune to ephemerality, impermanence and change by walking and pausing in Truro. We will ask guests to spend an hour with “the change that makes this place.” We will invite them to use words, diagrams, sketches and found objects to creatively respond to local events and experiences of change as it plays out across their time-based experiences of “this place.” The exact site and route of travel will be shaped by what is present at the event: people, weather, light, season, affordances.
We will then gather around a large scroll of paper. Together, we will create a collaborative, renga-like work on the scroll: a flowing, “call and response” sequencing of words, images and objects that poetically link our collected, incomplete, and ephemeral experiences of “place”.
The resulting renga-like work will take up challenges and possibilities that are offered by change, as it propels all humans into uncertain but linked futures. We will seek ways to share this work with a public audience.
The Cartography Primer is a workshop series held in conjunction with the Phats Valley residency program. Through walking tours, mapping and other means, we uncover and document the unique history of the site. Phats Valley Residency is administered by The Nomadic Department of the Interior (NDOI), a creative research group co-founded by Ann Chen and Davey Field.
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video: bohinic (This video demonstrates how the hour indicators are moved in proportion, from equal spacing at the equinoxes, to close spacing on one half and wide spacing on the other as the year approaches the solstices. In reality, it would take a year to complete this revolution.)
In celebration the Autumn Equinox, we offer a reminder of the wadokei, also known as Japanese temporal time keeping. Wadokei clocks divide a day into unequal temporal hours, composed of six daytime units (from local sunrise to local sunset) and six night time units (from sunset to sunrise), regardless of the season. In summer, the daylight hours are longer and the nighttime hours are shorter, and the opposite in winter. Only on on equinoxes, such as today, the hours are spaced evenly. Whereas on solstices, the clock would have half open spacing on one side and half closed spacing on the other.
On these days of equilibrium, perhaps what feels so good is the reality that the time of our body “clock” actually feels like what our mechanical/digital clocks communicate back to us. In contrast to say, December at 5pm in Eastern Standard Time, when it it feels as though night has, and will be lasting forever. Even iPhones ticking off the minutes of an even 24 hour clock get to feel “right” at least twice a year, on the equinoxes.
Back in the Muromachi period (approx. 1337 to 1573) the wadokei were invented. The history of their design is fascinating:
“[Wadokei] are divided into two sets of six units called “koku”. Each koku bears the name of one of the 12 noble animals of Japanese culture, from the rat to the boar, and were numbered in an unusual way. Midnight, the hour of the rat, was associated with number 9, while 6 represented dawn. The numbering continued, with the number 4 was the last koku before noon. As with midnight, number 9 also represented noon, and the sequence repeated itself along the afternoon and beginning of the night. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 were not used in Japan for religious reasons as they corresponded to the number of bell strokes used by Buddhist monks as a call for prayer. The crucial times in this seasonal system were the boundaries between daytime and nighttime. These points in time, at dawn and dusk, were defined as the times when three lines on a human hand became visible or invisible.” – From WorldTempus, 2012
In 1873 Japan adopted Western style timekeeping and surrendered this incredibly embodied daily attunement to seasonal variations for the detached linearity of 24 equal hours, 365 days a year. Where might we all be if things had gone the other way? What if the West had adopted temporal time? Might we better prepared to meet the planetary changes underway today? It’s hard to imagine that being more aware of changes in light and season, and having time actually reflect our bodily rhythms on a daily basis, wouldn’t scale up to aid us in keeping awareness of other, even larger earth forces inflecting our lives. Temporal time certainly makes it harder to forget that we’re inhabiting a planet that’s rotating AND moving through cosmological space on a minute by minute basis. Who knows what else such clocks might help us remember or relearn today.
Luckily, not all hope is not lost. Contemporary designers have reintroduced the wadokei, just in case you’re curious.