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from Sonic Life of Giant Tortoise by Toshiki Okada, performed at JACK, Brooklyn, photo Carol Rosegg
She described the feeling. It would start somewhere near her solar plexus and then move up slowly, all the way up into her tear ducts. Or, maybe it would be easier to describe the feeling like being really, really hungry. So hungry, that you have this deep hole, or actually a hollow feeling, in your center. But for which there is no fix. Yet somehow, this feeling would actually feel good, because the feeling itself would mean that you had “really lived.” And you would then have this “bittersweet” feeling for the rest of your life.
She was Susannah Flood, momentarily acting the nameless part of a Japanese man in Toshiki Okada’s play, Sonic Life of the Giant Tortoise at the JACK theater in Brooklyn. Over 65 minutes, this “character” moved across all five actors on stage, both male and female. At this moment, he was describing what he imagined it would be like if his girlfriend had died, though in “reality,” she hadn’t. He seemed desperate to have some relief from the banality of his daily life, and by imagining that she was “no longer here,” he created a context for having “wistful” feelings that were otherwise impossible.
photo Carol Rosegg
Several weeks ago we wrote about what might come after we humans have accepted that from here on, we are inhabiting an unprecedented planetary reality filled with unpredictable events of change, especially as a result of global warming. And, we asked, what might come now, given the fact that the algorithm of this unfolding material change was set into motion long ago and irrevocably, and that there’s no longer anything to “solve,” “teach,” or “communicate” about this reality. Upon arriving at our own acceptance of these “facts,” we described experiencing a “weighty sensation.” We also went on to explain that this acceptance is, for us, preferred to pretending that things were otherwise, because there was the potential to pay attention to this uncomfortable sensation, this “hollow center” you might say, and make something from there, rather than ignoring it:
we’d like to imagine a growing number of creative people attuning to different registers of the current material realities of daily life and offering images/sensations/words from their deeply felt experiences of those realities—from places and times where this bare reality strikes deep. AND then, instead of turning away from these highly inconvenient and disturbing sensations and thoughts, what if they took the time and did the incredibly hard work to make something from within such sensations and thoughts, without expecting any outcome (especially any company) in return? – from FOP May 2014
As we experienced Toshiki Okada’s production, we felt as though we were witnessing an uncanny (re)enactment of the realization we had only a few weeks prior. There’s no getting back things that were dear to us once they are gone, but in their absence, highly nuanced constellations of feelings surface that can be surprisingly instructive. The psychological space of these feelings is vast, but unfamiliar and largely unexplored in Western culture. According to Okada’s production company, the word 切なさ/setsunasa was translated from Japanese into the words “bittersweet” and “wistful” for the English version of the play. This word is untranslatable into English, but the kanji used, “切/kiru” is used in the verb “to cut.” When used as an adverb, as it is in the play, it is more akin to “loss” and “loneliness.” And it also suggests an “atmosphere” around the feelings. It is not as strong as “literal sadness” and could be used to describe a constellation of feelings felt by a person during the autumn season. The word’s etymology includes both a sense of sadness, as if the “heart was torn,” and an even older link to “thinking something precious.” For us, Okada’s work is exhilarating, as it uses the difficulties of translation to invite global audiences to cultivate more nuanced vocabularies and psychological capacities for being with, and describing, what is in the midst of passing out of being.
Okada is well-known for delving into the uncomfortable psychological spaces of Japanese society. And post-March 2011 his work and process changed significantly. Though Sonic Life was written pre-earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, the work deeply resonates with the ongoing realities currently unfolding in Japan — and far beyond. That’s the incredible power of this production. Most of us, contemporary humans that is, experience some version of daily life as being out of sync, and perhaps banal, in comparison to what we know in our core (or hollow center) about what is actually unfolding in the world, just beyond our comprehension — (global warming, rising seas, droughts, superstorms, or Fukushima). An actor on stage whispers speaks to this under his breath, to no one in particular: “you people aren’t living at all.”
Yet, the play is far from being accusatory. Through faltering, dead pan statements delivered in stops and starts without a traditional plot, hauntingly unanswerable provocations are left to hang in the air. The medium, or mode of address, is the message. Are we actually relieved to lose someone/thing because it breaks us from the numbing flow we’ve been buffered within for too long? Is it human nature to have our material affordances and life itself become more meaningful and dear only after they are irrevocably lost?
The character(s) in Sonic Life want to be “capable workers,” but they are mostly bored out of their minds, working, commuting and consuming for no real purpose. They’ve been lucky enough to escape most of the cruelty and pitfalls in life so far, only to be left with an almost desperate sense that they haven’t really lived, and that they “want to live more fully” and even to say out loud, “I’ve lived my life to the fullest.”
As one character puts it: “What I’m doing right now, actually, despite what it looks like, is having a dream.”
Yet, this dream is our reality and there is no mistaking it. The actors of the performance make disarming eye-contact with audience members. The division between stage and audience blurs as direct references are made to the “outside” that is unfolding in real-time (subway rumblings, traffic, sound of the a/c inside the theater).
photo Carol Rosegg
The play closes with a circuitous unfolding of words, offered not as conclusion or truth, but as open thoughts that are, again, directed to no one in particular. “The life we are living is a far cry from what humankind ought to be living.” This is quickly followed by a seemingly protective, reassuring counter statement/question: “Maybe we’re not cut out to live how humankind ought to live?” Maybe we just can’t bear it. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s simply beyond our imaginations and capacities as a species to hold the thought that the everyday is connected to something bigger, and act in accord with that thought. And, maybe if everyone is unable to do this, as seems to be true, then our individual “failures” to live as we ought to are neither failures nor tragedies. And, even if we are able to live as we ought to live, the current situation on the planet suggests that everyone has failed, not just me or you. Perhaps this could be reassuring. Either way, we come to a realization that we have limits. As one of the characters points out, we can’t fly like birds AND there’s no need for us to fly like birds — therefore this “limit” of not flying is okay.
Yet, in the Anthropocene, we’ve invented technologies, economies, and cultures that extend beyond both our own species’ and our own planet’s limits. We have designed ways to fly, that involve huge carbon footprints. Perhaps humans ought to live without flying like birds. But we don’t.
*sincere thanks to Nana Koetting at chelfitsch for her assistance in translation.
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* all images FOP 2014
An inhalation of overwhelming toasted sweetness coincides with something sticking to the bottom of your shoes. It’s as though you are suddenly swimming in air filled with sugar. At the far end of this vast warehouse, sited along a quickly-changing stretch of Brooklyn waterfront, an enormous white sphinx looks back at you. She’s larger than you imagined. Her glowing presence is part of a completely immersive sensory experience — the stickiness, the scents, the curves of searing white contrasting with the derelict, dark, rusty, crumbling architecture. Shafts of light cut down from a lofty ceiling. Figurines of children, made of molasses, are melting in the summer heat. Their black substance spills violently across the floor, resembling both blood and oil.
The former Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn (at one time, the largest in the world) currently is haunted by the material it traded in, for over 100 years. Through July 7th, the factory is home to Kara Walker’s project entitled, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.
Sugar runs wild through this space and permeates it in totality. This material occupation drips from the walls, and not so ironically, from collapsing infrastructure. Thoughts race: what did you consume today that included sugar, or perhaps more realistically, what did you consume that didn’t? This material is literally both inside and outside of you today, and has been all your life. Sugar is instantly and irrevocably bound to a multitude of complex human realities — racism, gentrification, global trade, labor, capitalism. Yet, in this encounter, the bare materiality is disarmingly commanding unto itself.
Forces of people and planet have assembled with this material and set it into motion, and in turn have been set into motion by it, for hundreds of years. For a brief window of time, those forces now are subordinated to the mighty voice of its singular substance—through a booming female form. We look up to her and feel incredibly small in comparison. It’s the Anthropocene and Walker’s work baths us in our entangled complexities. Here, material suddenly seems to be speaking more loudly than it has in the past, or perhaps we have new ears to hear it. When did we begin to take for granted the elaborate networks of people and planet that have delivered this particular material, and so many others, into our lives? Through an encounter with A Subtlety, this material’s power and agency speak back to us and hold us in its steady gaze.
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window seat view after departing Tromsø
For the past month, we’ve been subject to a wide range of changing circumstances and planetary forces. But one force has been constant— the force of light.
Before visiting the north, we had naively thought that the “midnight sun” would be bright and clear. We thought that our days here would be bathed in light similar to the light we know in New York—only for longer periods of time. We had imagined that we would adapt to that difference easily.
We’ve now come to understand that in the land of the midnight sun, things are a bit more unfamiliar than we had imagined. Here, people talk about the extremes of light as if they were a weather system. The early summer days of our trip have been filled with rain and low hanging, overcast skies. Instead of brilliant clear light, for long string of days we’ve experienced an undifferentiated continuum of grey skies. The light of 2pm has been the same as that of 7am, and that of 4am as well. And this day’s light is the same as yesterday’s and tomorrow’s. It became incredibly challenging (without watches) to determine if time was passing or even if we were tired. The decision to sleep has come less out of exhaustion and more out of randomly realizing “what time it is” and then deciding to close the curtains because of what the mechanical clock says, rather than what the body says. The effects have accumulated. They’ve resulted in a low-grade psychological and physical drain. We’ve shared many conversations about how to manage these effects, and no one seems to have come up with a way to work around what can’t be stopped: no matter the curtains, blinds or T-shirts over the eyes, the light still leaks through, psychologically if not physically. Closed eyelids continue to detect what exceeds our evolved limits regarding light and sleep.
As days ebbed by, we started to wonder about the toll this was taking on our brains/bodies. We were moving more slowly, or perhaps the world was? How might we alleviate this intensifying sensation of disorientation? It felt as if somehow a higher atmospheric pressure was impinging on our bodies at these locations. We couldn’t seem to pull out of our cognitive fog. There must be some kind of polar magnet interfering with our brains. Could there be such a condition as “latitude sickness?” If so, we had it, and it wasn’t the first time.
midnight sun in Reykjavík
midnight sun in Reykjavík
midnight sun in Tromsø
midnight sun in Oslo
midnight sun in Vardø
midnight sun in Kirkenes
As the disorientation intensified, it actually helped to deepen our realization that we were, indeed, in “the north.” Its vast space and mythic intensity was sinking in. We were far from the landscapes, ecologies, and daily weather that was so familiar as “home.” Psychological vertigo set in. Timescales, long and short felt as though they were collapsing.
rare moment of light over the Varanger Penninsula
From within our mental haze, we looked out over the Barents Sea and back across rock landscapes that were still rebounding from their dramatic crush by Pleistocene Ice. We imagined into the not so-distance future where the vast, empty spaces around us are filled by new systems of transit and new affordances designed to exploit the changes brought on by the warming climate. For the life span of our species thus far, the north has demarcated an edge of the human world. What lies beyond has acted as a physical limit to human habitation. We felt that we came up against the limits of our own capacities to inhabit this place every day we have been here. Sensing these “local” limits helped us to also sense how we are connected to and embedded within much larger, even planetary contexts of limits.
shipyard in Kirkenes
At these far north edges of space and time, borders between Norway, Russia, Finland, and Sweden are less distinct, and the temperatures are warming. More people will be arriving, along with their affordances. There are harbors preparing now for the opening of the Northeast Passage and the resulting new “opportunities.” Fishing industries that collapsed decades ago are coming back again as fish such as cod migrate to cooler northern waters. But as warming continues, the cod will likely keep heading even farther north, leaving another round of economic bust in their wake.
It seems to us that as resources along these northern coasts and offshore are exploited, “the north” will become less of one sort of edge—known until now as the Ultimate Thule, the end of the world—even as it becomes more of another sort of edge—the edge of big, fast-moving regional change that will ramify southwards and around the globe.
For our research for Future North, we’ve attempted to bring an aesthetic framework to the task of addressing incredibly challenging and complex contexts of change in the north. As guest researchers who are passing through towns and landscapes that home to local people, we realize now that for the past month, we have been living an equivalent to what is now arriving as our planet’s strange “present.” In many ways, we are all strangers now, even in our local landscapes, and our home landscapes are becoming strangers to us. Wild deviations from the familiar norms of our home places are becoming more frequent and straying farther and farther from known models for prediction. Compounding strangeness is not specific to the north, but it is particularly intense here.
As residents of the 40th parallel, our contribution to the Future North project, perhaps, was to bring with us a perspectival distance and difference that comes from being from elsewhere — the elsewhere that is quickly becoming everywhere.
The local relays into the global, the past and present relay into the far future. As guest researchers, and in comparison to the deep, rich, highly nuanced local histories and practices we glimpsed, we were two humans passing through. We have attempted to acknowledge and respect these realities, while asserting that what is unfolding here is not separate from what is unfolding (strangely) elsewhere, be it the wildfires of New Mexico, the rising seas in New York City, or the urgent cultural adaptations unfolding in Japan.
slag outside the Sydvaranger iron mine in Kirkenes
As strangers in our local landscapes, how might we turn brains, bodies and spirits toward the vastly different planetary realities now arriving? How do we scale to changes that aren’t in sync with the physical, cognitive, and cultural structures that we have evolved? The psychological effects of big, fast planetary change are real. This reaffirms our sense that making our physical and psychological states sturdy enough to navigate change as gracefully as possible is a highly individual and personal task.
The stories that we tell ourselves along the way, while we are in the midst of big fast change, will be highly consequential. Turning at the Limits of the World is our attempt to invent a meaningful way to inhabit the changes that are already unfolding, and to prepare for those to come. With it, we try to cultivate an awareness of the limits we have already crossed. And we try to move meaningfully with the material realities that compose the present moment.
What difference might the Future North project return to the changing north it encountered?
all images this post FOP 2014
*We are deeply grateful to Future North collaborators and the inspiring people we have met, learned from, and been hosted by over the past month. Sincere thank you to: the Future North team, Tanya Busse and Jet Pascua at Small Projects, Åsa Sonjasdotter, Lindsay Bremner, Pikene på Broen staff, students at AHO, Tromsø Academy of Landscape and Territorial Studies, Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art, Hilde Methi, Annette Wolfsberger, Dominic Gorham, Svein Harald Holmen, Aurelien Gamboni, Marit Nøkleberg, Christian Fredrik Eriksen.
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House of Cards, smudge studio, for Inhabiting Change workshop, Tromsø, 2014
While in Tromsø, we’ve taken up residency at the small projects gallery at 23 Grønnegata. It’s a special architectural space, shared with the offices of the Sami Reindeer Holder’s Association of Norway. The building was designed in 1984/5 by Bl. Strek Arkitekter (Blue Streak Architecture). It is open to the midnight sun via walls and vaulted ceilings of windows, and it offers heated floors and only a few right angles. All of these make it a wonderful place to stage a workshop and exhibition entitled “Inhabiting Change.”
small projects, 23 Grønnegata
Our workshop invitation to prospective participants at the Tromsø Academy of Landscape and Territorial Studies and Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art read:
INHABITING CHANGE | smudge studio
This workshop invites you to cultivate a broader gamut of personal and creative responses in relation to the volatile and vibrant material realities of big, fast environmental change. Over this three-day, hands-on workshop, we will design and build simple structures that will be exposed to forces of change. We will use the structures we build as means for tuning in to scales and agents of change as they move through and alter Tromsø. Our process will create a moving, responsive aperture onto materials and places as they disassemble and reconfigure outside of (or beyond) human desire and control. Our intention is to arrive at a new place in our individual and group orientations toward the following questions: What does it take to recognize our tendencies to describe natural and built environment change as “destruction?” How might we cultivate nuanced capacities to inhabit change and address change as life itself, that is, as a continuous “passing into vibrant nexts”?
Our group was composed of global travelers and transplants to Tromsø from France, South Africa, Canada, China, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, and the United States.
Across three days and environmental conditions that changed from hour to hour right outside the windows (snow, rain, wind, fast moving clouds that touched and reshaped the landscape and sunlight), our group set to work. During the first introductory day, we offered two different preparations of green tea. We brewed the same kind of tea through two different durations and offered the group a chance to taste how time acts as a material force of change. From there, we set up the group’s individual projects, inviting participants to experiment with using art, architecture and design as apertures onto specific forces and dynamics of change. Our aim was explore practices for attuning to forces of change and for preparing to work and live with uncertain planetary realities.
image Tanya Busse
image Tanya Busse
1/ BUILDING INTENTIONS (Day 1)
Build a three-dimensional structure. Design it with specific intentions in mind, for a specific purpose or to fulfill a need (shelter, aesthetic pleasure, to demarcate space etc.). Use any materials. Use the structure for its intended purpose and document the results.
FIELD NOTES: Take field notes on what you’ve built and why (notes on intention, form and function, how you came up with clear purpose and how you designed FOR that purpose). What is your process for approaching a project with a clear intention and purpose? How did your intention shape your choices during construction?
Step 1 work of smudge studio
Step 1 work of Tanya Busse
Step 1 work of Marsil Andelov Al-Mahamid
Step 1 work of Wenjing Chen
Step 1 work of Vlad Lyakhov
2/ RELEASE TO PLANETARY FORCES (Day 2):
Expose your structure to one or more nonhuman force of change (heat, cold, wind, humidity, pressure, air, gravity, motion, vibration, light, darkness, fire). Document your observations of how these forces of change affect your structure.
FIELD NOTES: Take notes on how your structure has changed in response to its encounter with non-human forces. Note what forces changed your design and how. Describe what it feels like to see your intended purpose changed by forces. Note what surprised you about this interaction.
still from 12 hour exposure of smudge studio’s house of cards for step 2
3/ CO-DESIGN WITH NON-HUMAN FORCES (Day 3):
Pass your changed structure off to another participant. Take the “new” structure that was passed to you and creatively respond to the nonhuman changes it has undergone. Repurpose/reconfigure the new structure into a new form or usage.
FIELD NOTES: Note what it feels like to work with an object that has been shaped by both non-human and human forces. Note how it feels to have your object altered again, this time by another human, with unexpected outcomes.
Tanya Busse’s creative response to Vlad Lyakhov’s work, after he had exposed it to water
Isabel Schiltz’s creative response to Marsil Andelov Al-Mahamid’s work, after he had exposed to outdoors overnight
Marsil Andelov Al-Mahamid’s creative response to Tanya Busse’s work, after she had exposed it to the sea
4/ DISCUSSION + PRESENTATION + EXHIBITION (Day 3):
How might emotional and conceptual responses to change be broadened so that what we habitually take to be “destruction” might be considered instead as “passing into something else”?
What stories can we activate from within these other emotions to describe the changes that have occurred to the structures we made in the workshop?
What connections between humans (and our designs) and the natural world has the workshop made sense-able?
How might we anticipate unpredictable change? How might we design for transformation? What happens when our creative process includes expectations of unpredictable change?
How might we develop capacities that allow us to consider long-term changes while acknowledging that the complexities of such changes will always escape and/or exceed us?
What different constellations of feelings and design responses are possible in relation to:
1) planetary/environmental changes of different scales and diverse human consequences, such as falling cherry blossoms, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions?
2) forces of change that meet the built environment and cause our intentional designs to undergo unexpected changes we do not desire (i.e. Fukushima Daiichi, coastal cities effected by climate change)?
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“He [a Sami from Vahranger by the name of Anders Pouelsen] also said that when he lifts the rune drum high into the air, or when his son Christopher lifts the stone high into the air, they will get an answer, just as two persons do when they speak to each other … when asked, [he] replied that when he learnt the rune drum craft from his mother, it happened because he wanted to know how people were faring far away, whether they were enjoying good fortune, and he wanted to know whether travellers will be in luck, and he wanted to help people in distress, and with his art he wanted to do good, and his mother said that she would teach him such an art. He himself had not asked to learn. He was questioned further at length, and he abided by his previous confession and did not change it in any way, nor would he confess more about his activities than that this was an art of playing the drum with which he had done no harm. Thus, on the basis if what has been confessed, the following was decided. After diligent examination and due consideration of the nature of this case and of Anders Pouelsen’s length confession, we have learnt how exhorted creatures, represented by figures on his rune drum, indue him to believe, at the Devil’s whim, the acts and signs he asked about and looks for, acts and signs which according to him are indeed confirmed by events, and he states that he has learnt this craft from his mother and another Sami in his youth.” — from written records of the The Witchcraft Trials in Finnmark Northern Norway, Liv Helene Willumsen (p.377-392, the Regional State Archives of Tromsø | The Archives of Finnmark District Magistrate No. 25 | Records of Court Proceedings 1692-1695)*
A variety of planetary equilibria made it possible for the human species to evolve. Human activities on a global scale are now pushing those equilibria to their tipping points. Our species continues to act in ways that exceed the “limits” of its own “world” on this planet. As part of our current field research, we (smudge) have been enacting a particular, performative “turning” and “inhabitation of change”. Through this “performative research,” we bring our own psychological states and material embodiments to sites and moments in which we, as humans, meet up with and address earth forces. Our wager is that our encounters with earth forces will activate recognitions of our personal, cultural, and perhaps even species limits.
Outside the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, Norway, we paused for a good part of this morning on a vibrant edge of a geological formation that is possibly over 2 billion years old. The vertical tilt of black rock that began as horizontal strata signaled dynamic forces that animate the earth’s continuous enfolding, unfolding, and refolding. Perhaps those Europeans who tried and burned Sami people and supposed witches in the 1600s near the monument and these rocks, feared not only the power of the Sami people, but also the sensation that these rocks induce: the sensation that the earth is an animate force.
The present situation of our species is that we live on a planet that is now moving farther from equilibrium. This situation is an accumulation of moments, events, and actions in which humans did not attune to the limits of Earth’s most recent equilibria. The process we (smudge) have been practicing in the past few weeks (an aesthetic/psychological/physical “turning at the limits of the world”) distances us, however gently, from 21st century affordances. It positions us where forces that configure and reconfigure the planet’s material realities can reach us. When we step into the practice, we try to sense forces pressing upon us (geographic, geologic, cultural, historical, psychological, etc.) more barely than they do in everyday life. The practice gives us time and place to remember, acknowledge and respect the reality that humans cannot reign in or control planetary changes now underway. The practice is ritual in the sense that it is an end unto itself. It is not about communication, teaching or creating change other than within ourselves, while we are in the process. It is highly internal, psychological, and individual — while at the same time it is highly connective across human and nonhuman distance and difference. Proof of the practice is that it has successfully set up occasions in which we think and feel highly entangled with dynamic and changing earth forces at “edges or limits of the world.” It is a humbling reminder and provocation to know and be with human-animal feelings of exposure to our individual and species’ limits — instead of attempting to tame, control or ignore them.
What can be learned when we invite, respect and turn towards the difference that these feelings present, and do so with something other than fear?
Contemporary Western-encultured humans have lost touch with the limits of the world, and our imaginations and capacities as Western-encultured designers and citizens are impoverished as a result. Turning at the Limits of the World is our attempt to turn our own practice towards a necessary difference.
We performed the following turn on Friday, June 13, 2014, via passage through Peter Zumthor’s Memory Hall, Louise Bourgeois The Damned, The Possessed, The Beloved and the Earth’s adjacent shoreline in Vardø, Norway.
*according to the Guidebook distributed at the Steilneset Monument and produced by the Varanger Museum, Anders Pouelsen was 100 years old. His case was deferred, but he was murdered with an axe while in legal custody. All images this post FOP 2014.
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Tjuvholmen, also known as Thief Island, is an emerging edge in urban Oslo that is activating “art,” “design” and Scandinavian “north-ness” as an attractor. The island, part of an urban renewal project built on landfill extensions, signals to the world that Oslo is now open to receiving alter-rhythms of human activity from around the globe.
views from Thief Island, Oslo
It’s questionable whether such projects “turn at the limits of the world.” And it’s not clear that such projects acknowledge that we are building them even as we humans arrive at, and exceeded, material limits of the world. Yet, it’s also important to acknowledge the complexities and contradictions that such projects raise for all artists, designers and architects whose work (ours included) trades in the very same terms (art, design, changing environmental realities etc.).
As we take up work that positions us at edges of change, we take up responsibility to enact new ways of meeting highly complex, deeply enmeshed, wide-reaching (non-local), fast changing material limits, such as those that converge at Thief Island and other coastal urban centers around the world. Most of those material limit are invisible. We cannot sense most of them directly or immediately. But unlike other animals, we humans (especially artists, designers and architects) are now capable sensing the world’s limits indirectly through our tools, media, and interpretations of data. We are capable of using our species’ extended cognition to recognize material limits that involve multiple dimensions and are distributed across far flung human and nonhuman bodies.
maps of Thief Island, Google Maps
In relation to melting arctic and Antarctic ice, Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University recently told the New York Times:
… while a large rise of the sea may now be inevitable from West Antarctica, continued release of greenhouse gases will almost certainly make the situation worse. The heat-trapping gases could destabilize other parts of Antarctica as well as the Greenland ice sheet, potentially causing enough sea-level rise that many of the world’s coastal cities would eventually have to be abandoned.
“If we have indeed lit the fuse on West Antarctica, it’s very hard to imagine putting the fuse out,” Dr. Alley said. “But there’s a bunch more fuses, and there’s a bunch more matches, and we have a decision now: Do we light those?”
Urban development plans and designs that do not “turn at the limits of the world” function in the human + nonhuman world as “fuses”—as generators of algorithms of cultural and material change that, once lit, cannot be put out. Instead, they will play out to limits beyond what we (especially Western encultured people) have taken to be livable in terms of comfort, health, and well-being. Contemporary human activities, desires, assumptions, and urban plans have indeed set up “a bunch more fuses.” Various human constituencies are asking, even demanding that they be lit. The question remains as to what other differences might be returned to the city of Oslo if “revitalization of an old harbor area” and a “design hotel” took their design specifications to be the newly emerging and unprecedented limits of the human+nonhuman world. We pose the same question back to ourselves as artists, designers and researchers who are invested in engaging emergent planetary realities. How might we turn (work, live, design) differently if we accepted and attuned to these limits? The question is large, and complex, but it is central to our work with the Future North project, and beyond.
Following Jane Bennett, we are convinced that we can no longer sense limits of the world as single issue questions such as whether to build here or not, whether to drill here or not, whether to approve a new design hotel or not. But rather, we must meet what contemporary limits of the world deliver to us with questions such as this: how do complex human-nonhuman assemblages that churn out negative patterns of effects hold themselves together, endure, and feed themselves? Some human – nonhuman assemblages are burning fuses that might be put out. And some are fuses that might remain unlit, but only if we re-tune and recalibrate our bodies/brains/minds to receiving subtle, indirect, veiled notices of the world’s complexly interwoven, new limits. And then, only if we turn.
Thief Island, with the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art on left
*all images this post FOP 2014 unless otherwise noted.
inside the Eldheimar Museum, Heimaey Island, Iceland
“In area, the home island is so small that it approximates Manhattan south of the Empire State building. The volume of material that came pouring out on Heimaey in 1973 would be enough to envelop New York’s entire financial district, with only the tops of the World Trade Center sticking out like ski huts. The image is not as outlandish as it seems. A few miles west of Manhattan, the high ground of Montclair—of Glen Ridge, Great Notch, and Mountainside—is the product of a similar fissure eruption.” — John McPhee, from “Cooling the Lava,” The Control of Nature
Heimaey, the main island of the Vestmannaeyjar islands of Iceland, via Google Mapsoutside the Eldheimar Museum, Heimaey Island, Iceland
Visiting Heimaey is a bit of a dream come true for FOP. Since reading John McPhee’s dramatic rendering of the island, in the now seemingly ironically titled book The Control of Nature, this place has lived prominently in our imaginations. The convergence of the human and the geologic, as well as a community’s ability to inhabit change, doesn’t get much more literal than this.
On this southern edge of Iceland, in January of 1973, a 1.5 mile long fissure opened and began an outpouring of lava that lasted until July. In addition to birthing an entirely new 225 meter high volcano, the event buried over 300 homes and left millions of tons of tephra in its wake.
Our journey to Heimaey earlier this week began with a short 30 minute ferry from Iceland’s main island. We passed through a dramatic cove filled with caves and turquoise waters. Once off the boat, we hiked through a “house graveyard” where homes are still buried beneath 15 meter deep tongues of solidified lava. From there, we hiked to the stunning new museum, Eldheimar, which was built in remembrance of the events of 1973. It has been built around what is now its centerpiece: an excavation of a buried home.
On Heimaey, the “turn” that we performed was a conceptual one. This is a place where people have adapted to massive, fast, unexpected change. In a matter of hours people had to abandon their homes. In many cases, they returned to homes buried in lava or ash. The lava flow was relatively slow, so as physical and material limits of the town were exceeded, locals were able to save their harbor and the community did not suffer a major loss of life. Because of this, citizens had the time and the psychological capacity to inhabit the change taking place for several months. This afforded active adaptation and creative response (such as spraying sea water on the lava to cool it and protect the harbor from destruction). Inhabitants could experience “catastrophic change” and turn towards it in part because a configuration of fortunate events confined experiences of loss to the loss of material things and not human lives. After 40 years, inhabitants narrate the life of their island in terms of “before” and “after” the eruption. People addressed the changes that engulfed Heimaey and recreated their town with new physical structures, infrastructures, and meanings.
What we paused with on Heimaey was our sense that human psychological limits greatly influence how we are able to meet change. If we have the opportunity to meet change from within our physical and cognitive limits, and while in the midst of a crisis that exceeds our psychological limits, there is a much better chance that we can creatively live within and move in accord with changing material realities. If many lives had been lost on Heimay, it’s very likely this island would be place of mourning and the new museum a memorial.
Yet, we all now live in a contemporary context that has exceeded limits across many realities, including the psychological, social, environmental, cultural, economic etc. The geophysical world churns out changes without concern for us or our built environment.
There’s much that humans cannot control when it comes to the geologic (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions). We design ourselves into even more risk when we stake our own viability upon so many affordances poised at so many edges and beyond the limits of the world. Our activities have set algorithms of change into motion long ago. Many of them can’t be stopped at this point. Even if we do have the luxury of a warning (as we did have about global warming) political, economic, and cultural forces that we set into motion long ago continue to execute themselves. Multiple, compounding forces of change are now co-mingling with one another, many of which we can’t control and currently are not attuned to (physically or cognitively). In this way, many of us live in a different framing of reality than those who inhabit Heimaey.
a walk through the “House Graveyard”, Heimaey Island, Iceland
at the Eldheimar Museum, Heimaey Island, Iceland
*all images this post FOP 2014 unless otherwise noted.