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screen glow, image cc
Back in the Pleistocene, or at least pre-1800s, humans had a different kind of relationship with light. Nights were dark unless lit by fire — a very different quality of light than that of our digital age.
As the days get shorter and shorter in December, and the longest night of the year only five days away, we find ourselves bathed more frequently in the bright cold, bluish glow emitted from various technological devices. The eventual crescendoing of natural light is one of the best parts of this season, while the increase in electronic screen glow-time is the less welcome consequence of being able to keep the same screen schedules no matter the time of day or solar season. Many have suggested that exposure to certain spectrums of bright light can over-stimulate our senses, especially at times of day that our biological clocks expect us to be in darkness. When our eyes should be sending end of the day, “winding down” messages to our brains and nervous systems, they often aren’t. And this can disrupt deeply engrained circadian rhythms.
We recently had the pleasure of attending a class on lighting at the Brooklyn Brainery. And for more than two hours we received an incredibly in-depth introduction to the science of light; how to playfully surf the NYC electricity system during off-peak hours in order to pay the lowest rates (via timers and the modlet); and to how to use our cell phone to turn our lights and heat on and off even when we aren’t home.
The quickest adaptation we made as a result of our evening of light immersion was inspired by a side-note to the main program. A comment from an audience member introduced us all to F.lux, a free software application that “makes your computer screen look like the room you’re in, all the time. When the sun sets, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights. In the morning, it makes things look like sunlight again.”
We quickly installed F.lux and have begun adjusting to the eerily calm, warm glow now beaming from our screens ever since. It takes some getting used to, but once you’ve made the switch, it’s jarring to see just how bright 6000 kelvins of “daylight” feels across your whole body when you’re sitting in a dark room. Light becomes a material force that undeniably shapes everything in the surrounding environment. The F.lux creators have posted a page of research documenting the health and cognitive effects of the blue screen at night, in case you want to learn more.
F.lux is literally synced to the sunrise and sunset, and self-adjusts based on the coordinates of your zip code. It can transition to “night” lighting gradually over an hour, or it can change in a quick 20 seconds at the moment the sun rises or sets at your location. You get to choose the degrees of nuance you want to experience. The application has several settings, allowing you to adjust night screens to match your home lighting and/or choose custom preferences that include “halogen,” “daylight,” “tungsten,” “candle,” and “fluorescent.”
We appreciate how suddenly our computers are signaling back to us an attentiveness to change that would otherwise be lost in the frozen pool of constant blue glow. The planet is moving and each day it presents a new and shifting rhythm of light. Suddenly, with this slight affordance, we can re-sync with deep evolutionary patterns and cosmological movements unfolding around us, while acknowledging the reality that we are biological-cosmological assemblages. What we do in response to experiencing the sun “rise” or “set” through a gradation of screen color day after day, is left up to us. We can simply enjoy the lowered sense of eye/brain stress immediately, or maybe we can be prompted to ask whether it’s time to get out from behind this screen and experience the sun-earth dance more frequently.
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The 2014 card features the Euphoria dune shack in the Provincelands of Massachusetts
If you are on smudge studio’s analog mailing list you might have been the recipient of one or more of the following images. Each year we send out a photo card to mark the change of year, often with a theme (often pertaining to landscape, travel, and time) that we sense will be inflecting our work for the year that is about to begin. We’re always on the look out for what each year’s image might become. 2014 marks the tenth year of this practice. This decadal anniversary, plus the fact that FOP turns four on January 1, 2014, makes it a good time to dig through the archives and see this year’s card in relation to the previous ones.
It feels as though 2014’s “inhabiting change” tagline captures our sense of the coming year more aptly than ever. As a forecast of what the overarching theme for our work and process might become in the new year, the caption and image suggest our sense that in 2014, we’ll begin to engage “geologic change” through daily life practices. We anticipate that the coming year will be a year where the planetary changes previously relegated to the “out there” will leak into daily routines and realities. We expect this will require us to reassess, if not reinvent, how we meaningfully engage the hours of each day while the current window of opportunity remains open.
From the signals we have received from friends and family in recent weeks, it seems that living within the forces of change, at times tumultuous and deeply personal, is becoming a shared theme. We sense that the potential of 2014 is not only to acknowledge and invite the realities of change into our daily lives, but also to inhabit and engage them from within their unfolding.
Super 8 still from time-lapse at CLUI Wendover’s southbase
“manifest your reality” in 2007 (Provincelands of Massachusetts)
for 2005 a Jenny Holzer Plane (via Creative Time) flying over the Hudson River (banner reads: “Whatever you are be a good one”)
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After September 11, 2001, the phrase “Go Bag” became common in New York City’s vernacular. In case of a natural or man-made emergency, citizens were told it’s important to have a bag of essentials ready to take with us at a moment’s notice. The contents are supposed to be items that will allow us to be self-sufficient for days without electricity, food, or water. Scores of New Yorkers prepared Go Bags, just in case. With recent storms Irene and Sandy, the Go Bag became newly relevant and was emphasized by the New York Office of Emergency Management’s campaign: “Ready New York.” These days, the OEM promotes its “Go Bag” on its website in conjunction with a host of social media links and a monthly quiz that New Yorkers can use to test their preparedness. The prize? An OEM Go Bag.
Since Sandy, we’ve been wondering what else we might need besides iodine tablets, water and flashlights for the events of change that continuously affect New York City. In this new age of the Anthropocene, we’re always already “inside” events of change — such as the formation of one of the largest typhoons in recorded history half way around the world. If there is no “outside” of such change events, what do we need in order to stay with their complex realities and engage them on a daily basis? If there’s no “away” to go to, then maybe we should reframe the very terms of our engagement with change events—through something like a “Stay Bag.”
Designing a “Stay Bag for Resilient Futures” is this semester’s final project assigned by FOP’s Jamie Kruse for her undergraduate course at Parsons. She asked students to design a “bag” and contents that illustrate the concept that there is no “away” when it comes to change events, and that offers some sort of resiliency for a specific population or zone in New York City. The Stay Bag reflects the reality that we (all humans) have nowhere to “go” to in relation to emerging planetary futures. We are all, especially artists and designers, charged to meet, engage and respond as creatively as possible to changing environmental conditions wherever we are and pretty much all the time.
This project isn’t about slighting the Go Bag, which offers an extremely useful set of tools and affordances in the case of an extreme event. But, what might we design for times when the sun is out — but Fukushima continues to leak across the ocean? What “tools” can the Stay Bag offer us that the Go Bag can’t because it’s designed for emergency mode?
As Earth continues to accumulate and respond to the effects of human impact, a Stay Bag might take the form of a set of aesthetic and conceptual happenings disguised as a portable community center. Or an aesthetic experience that takes audiences “through an inner space that is hard to traverse” (Morton, Hyperobjects, page 184)—such as the dawning realization that we are already inside the Anthropocene. How might a Stay Bag offer sensations that encourage us to recalibrate our responses to ongoing change and our (human) role in intensifying uncertain futures? What things and realities, previously overlooked, might such a bag aid us in co-existing with?
Here at FOP, we’re intrigued by the possibilities of the Stay Bag as an aesthetic and design provocation. What forms might Stay Bags take for our neighborhood in Brooklyn? How might this “bag” and its contents be reinterpreted, say, Los Alamos, New Mexico, Vík , Iceland, Oslo or Tokyo? Despite the massive differences and distances between those places, humans in each one of them are affecting, and being affected by, the same larger “hyperobjects” (such a global warming or the need to quarantine nuclear waste). So, what might a set of Stay Bags designed for different cities offer when considered in juxtaposition? FOP will explore the Stay Bag-as-provocation over the course of the next year though several projects and collaborations currently in-progress.
Kaen-doki flame-ware vase, Middle Jōmon period (3,500–2,500 BCE). Earthenware; 11 5/8 inches high, 11 5/8 inches diameter. Collection of John C. Weber.
We ask you to take one more conceptual leap with us as we sort through some initial thoughts on what a Stay Bag might be/come.
Recently, we had the chance to experience Mariko Mori’s exhibition, Rebirth, at the Japan Society. The show is self-described as one that transforms the Japan Society galleries into “Mori’s world through 35 sculptures, drawings, photographs, sound and video works, strung together into a narrative of birth, death and rebirth—a continuous circle of life force that the artist observes on a cosmic scale. Journey through space, time and consciousness in this immersive installation.”
The core inspiration for Mori’s work in Rebirth was her engagement with ancient Japan, primarily through fieldwork that she conducted at Jōmon archaeological sites throughout her native country. As noted on the Japan Society blog, this included stone circles that are thousands of years old and Jōmon pottery, which remarkably has been credited with being the first pottery in the world.
Upon entering the galleries at the Japan Society, visitors are immediately confronted by a Middle Jōmon pot (pictured above) that is more than 5,000 years old, resting under a dramatic spotlight in an otherwise cool, dark and silent space. As the New York Times comments, this first encounter is a highlight of the show.
When we look at such ceramics, we look at (and experience) how humans have activated design as an affordance for navigating change. The alchemy of clay and fire rendered life massively easier for humans from that point forward. It immediately changed our relationship to challenges of food preparation and storage, and how we could henceforth move through the world. The ability to transport things without leaking and breaking down was previously an impossible reality. Jōmon pottery was invented during a significant turn in human evolution and design—a time when planetary changes, namely climate change, were transforming daily life. This pottery became an extremely useful tool for navigating geologic change at the end of the Pleistocene epoch.
If we can manage to experience this pot as a mighty signal of humans’ capacities to design for the challenges of planetary change, it might communicate something valuable and prescient to us today. Seemingly inert materials writhe with potential. Enchantment lies in the unknowability that separates us from the specifics of the pot’s creators and its previous uses. Nevertheless, to us, this pot provides inspiration for a contemporary “Stay Bag.” It communicates the wildlydynamic potential of what things might look and feel like when human capacity to design meets planetary change from within daily life practices — from within the “stay” position, so to speak.
What might be most intriguing about the Jōmon pots is that they are functional while ALSO being expressive, decorative, performative, ritualistic and animistic. The ancient pot pictured above is startlingly alive and vibrant. Known as “kaen-doki” or “flame-ware,” it’s easy to imagine the pot’s twisting forms projected by pulsing firelight onto the walls of Jōmon interiors during rituals, as archeologists suspect they once did. Arguably, designs that supply such a gamut of functional and aesthetic capacities cultivate a certain mode of human existence. The humans that invented Jōmon pottery were highly attuned to the forces of change that surrounded them on many levels simultaneously. How might we activate the materials that surround us today and make things that ground us within, and draw us closer to, the complex planetary realities that we face — while supplying us with objects that deepen our experiences of “here and now” beyond mere functionality?
This specific pot, as it passes through Mori’s show, continues a recontextualizing relay among artists that has been thousands of years in-the-making. What might Stay Bags of today relay to artists and citizens 6,000 years from now? The pot is an object from the deep past that also enacts a message that extends into the far future. How might we pick up and continue that relay from here? What do we need our “bags” to hold on a daily basis, while supporting the new, unprecedented movements that sea-level rise and radiation leaks will require of us?
The invention of Jōmon ceramics marks the emergence of a lively assemblage of co-existence humans, materials, time and earth forces, and daily life practices necessitated and enacted in the face of massive change. The pots are simultaneously outcomes and processes. They are reminders that humans have navigated monumental change in the past — and that we are capable of inventing things to meet the massive difference/change that is just now coming into existence. The provocation to design and build a Stay Bag is a context for activating our capacities to design and make within, and from, what we can sense and experience when we deeply inhabit the planet from a responsive “stay position.”
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still from Rinko Kawauchi’s Ametsuchi book preview on Vimeo
For the last few weeks, the final paragraph of Timothy Morton’s “Guilt, Shame, Sadness: Tuning to Coexistence” has been hard to get out of our minds. It’s been inconvenient not to be able to shake it off, but this inability to forget affirms the power of its provocation:
“If we want to progress ecologically, for instance if we want to have more people accepting the reality of global warming, then we need to walk them through an experience that is phenomenologically equivalent to accepting global warming, rather than bludgeoning them with facts or trying to ‘guilt them out’ or shame them, which will only breed denial. The best way to do this is to make contact with the liquid center of sadness, often frozen into melancholy, at the core of sentient being. This liquid core is the trace of coexistence, shorn of coexistents, unconditional, strange, palpable yet withdrawn, uncanny, sad. That way, no bludgeoning is required: we will have poured people into the right psychic space to accept the very large-scale, long-term issues that beset this planet.” – from “Guilt, Shame, Sadness: Tuning to Coexistence” by Timothy Morton
Many artists, citizens, and others spend a great deal of time considering how to engage issues of our time that are induced by “hyperobjects“— how to translate those issues into something that is neither activism nor polarizing politics, but that taps into deeply experienced human realities. Though Morton’s “we” and “them” in the quote above feels a bit polarized, we assume he actually means to include himself/ourselves in those who “need to be talked to.” And, even though we find it challenging to fully relate to his characterization of a “liquid center of sadness,” something about his statement hits the mark.
As he suggests, his statement is not a “bludgeoning,” it is a description of a reality. It’s currently impossible to go through a day without receiving news that challenges our best of hopes and intentions for the future. A simple weather report can often send one reeling. Whether it’s violent storms, floods, earthquakes, spikes of radiation currently flowing into the Pacific Ocean, or global warming, we’re already in the midst of an accelerating planetary reality that’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. So, what if we took Morton’s provocation to heart and used art to attempt to discover ways that give ourselves and others lived experiences of what exceeds us — instead of ignoring, “taking a break,” or leaving it to those who come after us to address? What if we actually tried to create experiences, through aesthetic practice, that are “phenomenologically equivalent to” global warming or any host of wicked problem sized issues pressing upon us?
We think Morton himself has made a good start at offering such a lived experience to readers of his new book Hyperobjects. For those readers, “acceptance” of global warming might mean allowing seemingly mundane activities to become occasions for one’s brain/body to inhabit and connect, on a daily basis, with the vast evolutionary processes that have been in play long before human life on earth:
“I start the engine of my car. Liquified dinosaur bones burst into flame. I walk up a chalky hill. Billions of ancient pulverized undersea creatures grip my shoes. I breathe. Bacterial pollution from some Archean cataclysm fills my alveoli—we call oxygen. I type this sentence. Mitochondria, anaerobic bacteria hiding in my cells from the Oxygen Catastrophe, spur me with energy. They have their own DNA. I hammer a nail. In consistent layers of ore, bacteria deposited the iron in Earth’s crust. I turn on the TV and see snow. A sliver of snow is a trace of the Cosmic Microwave Background left over from the Big Bang. I walk on top of the life-forms. The oxygen in our lungs is bacterial outgassing. Oil is the result of some dark, secret collusion between rocks and algae and plankton millions and millions of years in the past. When you look at oil you’re looking at the past. Hyperobjects are time-stretched to such a vast extreme that they become almost impossible to hold in mind.” – Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (p. 58)
Acknowledging co-existence and what Morton calls interobjectivity among human life/bodies/actions and pre-planetary cosmological events invites our “liquid center” to sense remarkable waves of incoming affectivity beyond our singular selves — we are still experiencing the Big Bang today! Even as humans “burn up” the material products of evolutionary history at rapidly accelerating rates, when we enact modes of thinking/moving that sense the co-shapings going on among the real and lively materials surrounding us, we become more capable of acting in relation to spaces and times larger than the “here” and “now.” Evolutionary mystery and enchantment link materials, through time, to forces and configurations that exceed human cognition. When we move and act in ways that take the present as something more than a narrow endpoint or culmination, we co-exist with the hyperobjects that we inhabit (global warming etc.).
While in Chelsea last week, we made a point to see Rinko Kawauchi’s photography exhibition Ametsuchi (“ametsuchi” is a combination of two Japanese characters 雨天, meaning “heaven and earth”). The title comes from of one of the oldest pangrams in Japanese — a chant in which each character of the Japanese syllabary is used. The exhibition brings “together images of distant constellations and tiny figures lost within landscapes, as well as photographs of a traditional style of controlled-burn farming (noyaki) in which the cycles of cultivation and recovery span decades and generations. Punctuating the series are images of Buddhist rituals and other religious ceremonies — a suggestion of other means by which humankind has traditionally attempted to transcend time and memory.” The large photos are breathtaking, but the wall text accompanying the show was equally powerful.
stills from Rinko Kawauchi’s Ametsuchi book preview on Vimeo
Towards the end of the text, Kawauchi writes:
“…there is an invisible point of tangency between apparently unrelated things. I investigate the connection between dreams and reality; I consider the beginnings of things. The sunset I see from the window of my home tonight is similar but different from what I saw yesterday. Every day is in a continuum of new days, each somehow different from the next. How can we say that there is no connection between those who pray in a far-off land at the end of the day? Throughout the world, we are comrades who share grace, and share as well the challenge to overcome any number of difficult obstacles. Even if our paths never cross, we who exist now on the same Earth certainly share something, a shared time and a shared place.” – Rinko Kawauchi, wall text for the exhibition, Ametsuchi at Aperture Foundation
Several times in Morton’s new book Hyperobjects, he mentions global warming deniers. Those who reject what can’t be “proven,” despite material consequences ramifying around the planet. Perhaps it is through a graceful acknowledgement of the co-existence of all that’s visible — and invisible — to us as humans, that creative practice can begin to generate the many “phenomenological equivalents” we need? Kawauchi seems to be reaching towards something similar through her text, but she simply states that the connections, though invisible, can’t be denied. We are of the mesh simply by inhabiting the Earth today.
How then, might we comport ourselves from within what we see, taste, know and feel — when what we are “within” exceeds our comprehension and sensing capacities? We offer Karolina Sobecka’s Clouds, from both sides (currently on view at IMC Gallery in Climate Art: New Ways of Seeing Data) as a place to begin. We first met Sobecka in Finland last month. In her remarkable series, we see the world from our usual perspective, looking up at the clouds. Sobecka pairs a familiar cloud gazing image with a satellite view of the same moment and location. This double viewing grounds the hyperobject (climate) to the earth while taking human perceptions beyond ourselves, where our embodied vision/capacities drop off. The real-time simultaneity is startling (there’s more happening than I can see and sense, even of the very place where I stand). This disruption gives pause as we realize there’s no division (except in our minds) between what we understand as “solid” (the things literally before us) and the vast continuous rotation of the Earth, seen from above (a “place” and scale larger than us, moving in real-time).
In Sobecka’s own words, “The project’s aim is to create objects that are mixtures of physical form and psychology. It is a strategy to explore the overlap of the material and immaterial: the values that shape the technological innovation and material culture, and the philosophy that inscribes humans in nature.”
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Within 24 hours of returning from Field_Notes – Deep Time, our recent residency in Finland, we noticed Plantago Major (also known as “white man’s footprint”) in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for the first time. A week prior, Oliver Kelhammer spotted this plant on the trail outside the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station. He describes Plantago as a “cosmopolitan.” He explained this is a notable species that can adapt, and even thrive, in disrupted environments. Its seeds stick to the bottoms of shoes and travel the world, with humans, to colonize new habitats. Plantago Major has potent medicinal and healing properties. Our newfound abilities to recognize this plant in our NYC backyard was the first of many realizations that we had been on a major journey that will inform and shape our work for months to come.
During our time in Finland we (smudge studio) served as “hosts” to five other participants that collectively composed the “Deep Futures in the Making” Field_Notes group. Our charge was not a simple one. We were to consider, embody, and perhaps even lessen the gap between human time perception and the geological time/context in which we are embedded as a species. Through the generosity and thoughtful insights of our group members over hours of conversation in the station’s seminar room, over meals, over tea beside a fire in a traditional Kota, and on walks alone and with others, we feel that we actually gained some traction on this daunting subject.
One of our most generative outcomes was to arrive at the following question, “What does it take to imagine and act in relation to deep futures”? Our group wondered, together, what kind of humans might we have to be/come to actually act in ways that relate to a future we won’t be around to see? What does it take to not just leave the task of caring for that future to those who come after us? What kind of practices, skills, affordances and might we begin to cultivate now, to ease future generations’ burden to adapt to the remarkable changes that are presently in-the-making?
It’s a rare opportunity to have the pleasure, and charge, to think so intensely about such an intimidating subject. The far future’s relegation as obscure subject quickly transformed into a remarkably relevant and urgent task for “now.” While other groups at the station seemed to wake before dawn with clear plans and schedules, as hosts of our particular group, we wagered that, in order to bridge the “gap” between human life today and in the far future, we would need to personally cultivate an experience of time that is more “open” and “expansive” that what we allow ourselves during our usual “busy” lives. We decided to invite a cognitive shift to occur and a relevance of the deep future to be sensed by asking group members to activate the art-making practices that are most meaningful and comfortable to them, and use them in service of this shared question. They would extrapolate from whatever art practices they are now engaged, use those practices as “sightlines” into imagined deep futures, and report back via field notes.
The fragility of the tundra, the unmistakably clean air and water, and the durability of the wall of rock looming over us (named Saana), lent material ground to our task. Much of this environment is very likely to change with the opening of the North Sea Passage, and as migrations of people seek cooler latitudes and distance from rising seas. Kilpisjärvi became an aperture onto the changes occurring nearby and far way on the planet, and a context for grounding our discussions and serious concerns for the short and long-term.
By the end of the week, we sense what was produced inside the space and time of this residency will relay beyond, offering potent new trajectories to our own practices. Rather than attempt to summarize what was generated, we offer four brief points as relays from our “Deep Futures in the Making” group:
• deep futures in the making are unknowable—but we know that change, as a material force, is certain to continue to unfold form here at increased speeds and intensities
• it is import to find ways to navigate change as it occurs
• the challenge is not to fear change, but to become curious about it
• there emerged within our group, a shared desire to invent practices that are gracious towards futures in the making
Reflecting on this list during the past week, it seems these points describe states of mind and being that aren’t so unlike the adaptive qualities of the Plantago Major, which thrives in both the changing arctic and the changing urban streets of New York. The abilities to move, to find “home” in various disruptive conditions, and to do so while carrying with us graceful affordances (such as the healing properties of the Plantago Major) is something we can all aim for in the days and years to come.
Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, trail on right where Plantago Major was sighted, FOP 2013
* also, back in New York, tonight we launch Look Only at the Movement at Parsons. Please join us in the Bark Room, ground floor 2 West 13th Street. We hope to see you there and are happy to report that the project was recently featured in Places: Design Observer.
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For eight years we based our practice in the “field” as much as possible, taking research trips that involved days of driving, seeking residencies in remote locations, producing projects that make us into travelers in our own city, etc.. Though we take great joy in translating our work into experiences that can resonate with gallery-going audiences, the core of our practice, the space and time where we generate the ideas, content, and discover new trajectories that lead to our “next,” almost always happens when we are outside, moving through environments (or are at least being still while outside).
Because our inclinations tend towards any opportunity to “go remote,” we’re thrilled to be traveling 1200km north of Helsinki to Kilpisjärvi, Finland soon to act as hosts in the upcoming art and science field laboratory called Field_Notes_Deep Time.
Unlike many institutionally-organized events, the foundational idea of the Field_Notes gathering is that being there — the specific “there” of the Finnish arctic (69°03’N; 20°50’E, to be exact) — while inhabiting a Biological Station for several days, walking across tundra and being in direct proximity with bare geology, will enable those present to productively explore the “dichotomy between human time-perception and comprehension, and the time of biological, environmental, and geological processes in which we are embedded.”
This is a dream location for us. We’ve had a small taste of how time and light move differently in the far north compared to the southern regions we are accustomed too. And we know that being somewhere new always unsettles habits and presuppositions. For us, Kilpisjärvi is the perfect context to take up ideas that feel urgent, but can be challenging to explore in habitualized daily life. It is from this place of disconnect that we hope to generate and cultivate practices that can directly fuel and guide daily life (wherever we find ourselves) towards comprehending the material connection we have to changing planetary realities—realities that are irrevocably linked to deep futures.
The focused frame we have developed for our time and shared considerations is “Deep Futures in the Making:”
“Potential futures are always in the making. Contemporary human activities and dynamic earth forces continuously shape and reshape emerging futures – both short and long-term. Right now, emerging human awareness of the Anthropocene and events such as climate change, the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and the Onkalo nuclear waste storage facility project are actively setting up evolutionary paths of human societies and geo-, bio- and built environments.”
In collaboration with our deep futures cohort group (Simo Alitalo, Heather Davis, Terike Haapoja, Oliver Kellhammer, Pia Lindman), we will aim to activate a variety of durations and conceptions of time. We will develop, test and evaluate specific artistic approaches based on the interplay of art and science. And we’ll explore how we might more real-ly comprehend effects (biologic and geologic) that extend into the far future, even as we acknowledge that we are already deeply, and materially embedded in this reality in the present moment. How do we simultaneously hold that thought and act? We are especially excited about what insights the far north, its latitude, its remoteness, its wildness, its sights, sounds and colors, may relay to us about changing conditions that are currently ramifying planet-wide.
Aerial image of Kilpisjärvi from late 1980’s. Kilpisjärvi biological station is located in the middle of the image, south of the road
Our group is one of five that will be at work in Kilpisjärvi. The others include: Journey to the Post-Anthropogenic, Deep Time of Life and Art, and Time and Landscape, and the provocative, Second Order.
On September 23 and 24th, at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki, there will be a free and open to the public informal symposium to share impressions from our time in the field. A full program and description has been posted online. We look forward to relaying signals from the field station as we are able, and upon return. In the meantime, all are welcome to join the open Field_Notes Facebook group, follow along and post comments.
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Fukushima Daiichi power plant and water tanks, image Kyodo/Reuters, August 20, 2013
In the lead up to the start of the academic semester we’ve had resiliency on our minds. It’s a concept that seems to be increasing in cultural resonance. Andrew Zolli, researcher of resilience, and curator and executive director of PopTech, recently wrote on his blog that usage of the word “resilience” has more than doubled since 1990. He also shares a link to Google’s Ngrams Viewer, which visualizes (in graph form) word frequency of books scanned by Google. The data gets interesting when one cross lists several terms, such as economic resilience, psychological resilience, ecological resilience, community resilience and social resilience. As a whole, contemporary humans certainly seem to be talking and writing more about resilience. Whether we are actually becoming more resilient as a species is an open question.
After listening to Zolli’s interview with Krista Tippett from early May, “A Shift to Humility: Resiliency and Expanding the Edge of Change” we’re convinced that resilience, inclusive of so much complexity across social, environmental, technological and infrastructural realities, is perhaps one of the most useful concepts for engaging the challenges of our contemporary moment. Zolli explains we are now living through, rather than waiting for, the effects of decades—if not centuries—of our own inaction.
In the interview, Zolli lays out a “design brief for the 21st century.” It includes thriving in the face of change, systems that sense emerging disruptions, systems that encourage cooperation, and the creation of systems that fail “gracefully.” Failing gracefully means that when one component of the system fails, it doesn’t bring down the entire system. For Zolli, resilience isn’t just an infrastructural affordance for navigating hurricanes and other natural disasters without suffering economic or infrastructural collapse. Resilience is also a human—and humane—concept that we must cultivate within ourselves as part of any resilient system that includes the built/cultural context in which we live. This can be an immense challenge, because we’re always engaged in an entanglement of systems that unfold at various speeds of effect and change which don’t necessarily happen at scales easily sensed by humans.
Still, as disruptions in our systems become more and more the norm, we don’t have to be destroyed emotionally, socially, or even materially. This claim puts a twist in current narratives about the challenges our species face, especially climate change. Zolli explains that if we aim to become a resilient species, individuals need solid, social networks (of the analog kind) and a set of “hearty” mental habits. He emphasizes that the social support systems need to be in place and nurtured before we need them. If you wait until disaster strikes, it’s probably too late. To believe that you are a resilient human, Zolli says, life has to feel meaningful and we have to believe we have agency. What would it take for each of us to feel resilient in the face of the next Hurricane Sandy? Or, more generally, to feel life as having deep meaning, even as we come to accept that resources aren’t infinite and disruptive, perhaps uncomfortable changes are going to keep coming? How can we feel enlivened by inhabiting this “expanding edge of change” and live it as a space of creative possibility? There isn’t a clear path or “checklist” on “how to” live in relation to these changes. In many cases, we will need to invent whatever amounts to the most resilient responses in the moment, and then navigate on as best we can. This work is vital creative work that requires individuals to spend time considering.
This fall, one half of FOP (Jamie Kruse) is teaching a first-year foundation course at Parsons, The New School for Design, called Sustainable Systems. The course is part of a new curriculum being rolled out this year, and it is included in The New School’s C6 project (Coalition to Confront Climate Change Challenges in Cities). The inclusion of the concept of resilience in the course description is encouraging, as is the overall brief:
This course is a required first-year course that provides a foundational understanding of the scientific and social issues related to the design of resilient urban futures. An understanding of the constraints, challenges, and opportunities presented by the need to design products, systems, and services that are more socially, environmentally, and economically resilient is at the core of a Parsons education. This course is where that work begins … By combining sequenced field trips and lectures to locations around New York City to prompt discussions and context-based learning related to sustainability, ecology, and systems with studio-based labs where fieldwork and applied scientific methods will be translated into informed art and design work, we will begin to build a creative agency that supports diversity, adaptability, and resilience in the face of ever-changing conditions.
It’s exciting to be engaged in a course with so much potential. I (Jamie) have spent some time developing my own definition of resilience, which has become a bit of a manifesto, and offered this to students for discussion on the first day:
Resiliency is the capacity to be flexible and adaptable in relation to complex events. Rather than striving to “recover” (return to what was) or “endure rigidly,” we instead aim to navigate change responsively. We make intentions and take actions that are made to lessen long-term impacts in the present, while attempting to keep future actions open to reconsideration and augmentation.
For example, we ask questions such as: Given this particular challenge or event of change, what response is appropriate to this moment, this place, this configuration of forces and materials? How might we best ensure that our processes and practices invite flexibility of response into the far future?
Zolli’s interview offers clear explanation of why it’s time to trade in words such as “sustainability” for the concept of resiliency. Unlike the concept of sustainability, resiliency doesn’t imply that we are aiming for balance, because balance is impossible. Nor are we working to develop solutions-based strategies. Sustainability’s aim for “balance” distracts from the magnitude of change at hand, where all actions have effects and consequences that often far exceed our capacities to grasp or control.
A big part of resiliency happens to be humility. Instead of being interpreted as “giving up” or “giving in,” humility means we get to embrace the reality of living in a complex system that truly always has been, and will be, beyond us. It also means we accept the inevitability that systems, many of which we have designed, fail. We actually suggest a break here from Zolli’s language. Rather than talking of system “failure,” we’d suggest speaking of system “change.” Stasis is what fails. Change is inevitable and the fact that it comes does not mean a failure has taken place.
So, what if we accept that humans aren’t necessarily masters of our technologies—or the planet? What might we invent from here? Might we begin to wager less on stability? We can’t help but wonder what different scenarios we might be seeing around the Fukushima event in Japan if such a stance became a part of our deep cultural background assumptions. At Fukushima, for over two years, a technological design has been failing in way that is far from graceful. Its reliance on a single component—electricity—continues to ramify catastrophe. Here, each hour spawns millennia of planetary effect. In this way, the event is an ongoing reality check regarding so many current practices and technologies in need of resilience.
concrete reservoir at Fukushima Daiichi, image Tokyo Electric Power Company