Practice as Passage | Steilneset Memorial Vardø
06.13.2014, 2:58 pm
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image_1“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.







Turning at the Limits of the Urban |Tjuvholmen
06.06.2014, 4:22 am
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photo 1

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.

photo 4views 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.

Oslo4maps 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.

photo 2Thief Island, with the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art on left

photo 3


*all images this post FOP 2014 unless otherwise noted.

Pompeii Of the North: Heimaey
06.05.2014, 10:51 am
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image_12inside 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

heimaey1Heimaey, the main island of the Vestmannaeyjar islands of Iceland, via Google Mapsimage_13outside 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.

image_1a walk through the “House Graveyard”, Heimaey Island, Iceland

image_5image_17at the Eldheimar Museum, Heimaey Island, Iceland

photo 1

image_7photo 2image_10photo 3

*all images this post FOP 2014 unless otherwise noted.







Turning at the Limits of the World
06.01.2014, 1:30 pm
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[Take this to be an obligation.]


[Once you arrive you will not be able to think abstractly or act directly.]


[Do research.  Find a geomorphological edge where human and nonhuman forces converge and delimit one another.  Define the route, timing, mode, support, and affordances of travel.  Each of these will prove to be highly consequential.]


[You will arrive for the first time only once.   Feel the forces of this place for your own body/brain/mind (and not as represented in guidebooks, research, others’ photos, habitual assumptions).]


[Choose or reinvent media on the spot—something capable of attuning to forces at play at this particular moment and edge.  Use them to signal the “edge-ness” that is being delivered at this place by geomorphological materials and human and nonhuman events right now.  Use the media to signal what is being disclosed here.]


[Collaborate with forces that are in the midst of making/remaking the limits of the world here.  Sense how these forces indicate when and how they deliver limits here.  Use the media and your body/brain/mind to sense when and why you will declare: “just enough” and turn.]


[Co-exist with the zero and the infinity that is your declared turning point, your human+nonhuman limit.  Experience a long exposure.  Like a photograph, let impressions accumulate via any means you choose.]


[This is not a defeat.  Declaring “just enough” and turning at the limit is not (ever) “turning back.”  Rather, it is to inflect your own movement in response to addressing and being addressed by limits of this world.  It is a heroic act to encounter and take in the limit of the zero—its “full stop.”   Your act of turning can be a ritual, it is most definitely a gesture of address to the strange stranger of the limit that is arriving here.  Your turning is a highly consequential act.  NOT to turn would have significant consequences.  To turn has significant consequences.  The only thing that you cannot do here is to live in this zero/infinity.  The turning point is not liveable.  It is an un-liveable state because it is always and only THE TRANSITION itself.  The turning point is the trans-siting, the transit, the trans-formation.  It is CHANGE ITSELF.  You cannot inhabit or know the turning point.  You can only pass through it.  This passage is the work.  It is the practice.]


[It is a heroic act to encounter and take in this fact of the physical universe:  to turn is to generate and live a difference.  To turn is to acknowledge a limit and live by that limit—but with a generative difference.  To turn at the limits is to generate potential and open the future.  To turn is to perform the winding up and the letting go into difference and surprise.  What is returned by this practice is a difference.  A difference is the gift that your turning offers back to the world.  It is a bow to the fact that the world is a continuously unfolding configuration and reconfiguration.  A bow is a turn, it is a wave form.  With this practice, you bow to the difference that the limits of the world make in yourself and in the world.  The gesture of turning-bowing returns you to the interlocking material reality that is you+the limits of the world.]

The Turning at the Limits of the World, signaled below, was performed by smudge studio at Öndverðarnes, the westernmost point of the of Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland, on 5.30.14.

penimage: Google Maps

tipimage: Google Maps

endimage: Google Maps






This a work-in-process for INHABITING CHANGE | smudge studio May/June 2014

Our field research for Future North will consist of an “inhabitation project” that will span several locations.  We will seek out sites and times where forces of change related to the futures of the “North” are unfolding with particular intensity, palpability and exquisiteness.  We will inhabit built structures, landscapes, and events at volatile edges of forces of change as “field stations” or “apertures” for observing, sensing, documenting, and creatively responding to “forces of change” in play on a daily basis around us.  We imagine making observations about, and creative responses to, global forces of change, and how they are reshaping daily, lived experiences and meanings of “North-ness.”

We will use the immediacy of new digital media to slow down, pay deep attention, move-with, and make-from-within events and forces of change itself.  We wager that the lively, alter-world in the midst of emerging right now will catch us and gesture back. Much of what we need for this project will be learned and invented along the way.

We intend that creative works resulting from our inhabitations at such edges will put the projects’ diverse sites into relation to one another.  We want to offer dynamic images and stories of how the unprecedented intensities, scales, and speeds of contemporary change are inflecting human daily life, imaginations, and acts of building and making.  The inhabitations will allow us to move-with some of these new directions, and make something of the generative potentials they offer to designers, artists, and citizens.

We intend to create dynamic tracings of the arrival of new futures of the North into widespread human + nonhuman cognizance. Works that result from Inhabiting Change may take the form of a series of linked multi-media dispatches. 

We also intend to compose a collaborative, human + nonhuman voice with multiple, moving points of view—while we live and make in the midst of the forces of change that currently are composing emerging futures north.

*all images this page FOP/smudge studio unless otherwise noted.

Turning Points
05.12.2014, 10:30 am
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“Arisa had come to Tokyo to perform a sort of ritual. A necessary ritual, though perhaps no ritual is unnecessary, it must be done because that is what a ritual is.” — from “Breakfast” by Toshiki Okada

“We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.” — from Dark Mountain Manifesto

“The fair wind failed.” — Caroline Bergvall, from Drift

“As far as she was concerned, Tokyo was gone, but only because she had loved the city, living here, and because if none of this had happened she would still be living here and because it hurt to admit that Tokyo could never be home again, that was why, without fully knowing it, but half consciously, she had flicked a switch in her head, quietly substituted one thing for another, making it a matter of the city, of Tokyo’s disappearance.” — from “Breakfast” by Toshiki Okada

“I’m not just cooling off, you know. I discovered that if I really let myself spin, it was like I was getting…purified. If I was feeling depressed, I would feel better, as if the depression flew off somewhere as I went around and around. Like I was in a salad spinner. So I began to spin faster and faster. Pushing the limit, you know?”  — from “Pink” by Tomoyuki Hoshino

red_crestFOP/smudge sakura wave crest design (inspired by Japanese mon/)

For eight years we’ve used travel and movement as our primary “studio” practice form, and over the last four weeks we’ve moved through various landscapes and built environments in Utah and New Mexico, punctuated by walks into the surrounding landscapes. In addition to experiencing incredibly vast and enduring geologic forms, we’ve also seen the continuing effects of a severe drought, recent and enormous forest firestorrential flash floods, uranium tailings piles and ever-expanding suburban sprawl into remote and water-scarce landscapes. And, after eight years of making work related to the significant and far-from-resolved accumulation of  nuclear materials in the United States, you might say we have become less than optimistic about the likelihood that “solutions” or even a general attentiveness to these complex realities will be recognized in the near future. This all has become coupled with our  acceptance that humans exist within a geological reality that is truly indifferent to our survival, even as it, itself, is shaped by human presence.

In the face of these realities, what might compel any human not to simply give up or to simply carry on protesting, mapping or describing the dire circumstances we’re in the midst of, but instead, to sincerely accept what is typically described as “loss”— and then still attempt to write fiction, draw, dance, pause or move with this deeply affecting awareness of irrevocable change?

If a particular human is not up for pretending things are any better than they actually are, and if they aren’t invested in keeping “busy” enough to keep up the pretense of being able to design their way out of present circumstances, then what might they be up for?

What if we started making work that merely draws us closer to these uncomfortable inklings of big, fast, irrevocable changes, instead of away from them? Maybe such work would no longer be about audiences, publics or institutions.  And it certainly would not be about recognition and understanding.  If we’re no longer making work to communicate “meaning” with others, maybe we’re doing nothing more and nothing less than making this work as way of attuning our individual selves and daily lives to the reality of what’s now in the midst of unfolding around us?  Maybe we’re making work that springs from turning and facing the question:  What does it take to be with what is right now passing into disappearance, or perhaps is already forever gone?

Such work wouldn’t be about education, “turning the tide”, waking up to a new consciousness, nor calling to action. Rather, 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?  Perhaps because they must, perhaps because it couldn’t be otherwise, because doing work in such a way and without expectations of outcomes might be what it takes to “go sane” in the Anthropocene.

During our current residency, in addition to spending as much time as possible outdoors, we’ve been attempting to catch-up on some reading. Incredibly, a few pieces have aligned with and further provoked the emerging ideas we outline above. Paul Kingsnorth’s profile in the New York Times Magazine and links to his earlier Dark Mountain Manifesto appeared at just the right moment in our process last month. Kingsnorth was quickly followed by our reading of two mind-blowing pieces of fiction in issue 127 of Granta dedicated to the topic of “Japan.” Toshiki Okada’s “Breakfast” and Tomoyuki Hoshino‘s “Pink” ushered us into a different psychological space (a space of going sane?) for a span of days from which we still haven’t fully returned. What might have been most disruptive about these pieces was the sinking sense that reading their work wasn’t drawing us into fiction, but into contemporary reality. What we take to be “now” is actually the quickly dissipating momentum of the past.  Many human cultures are still riding on that momentum, emotionally, politically, economically, cognitively, aesthetically, as we try to navigate the changing present.  But the difference, or alter-future, now arriving all around us, can’t be engaged from that version of “now.”  As more and more artists offer hyper-real-sensation-al encounters with the material realities of our contemporary circumstances, perhaps the dissonance between no longer viable versions of “now,” and newly merging versions at the hands of such artists, will lessen. In support of that “perhaps,” Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Arrival Gates,” in the same Granta issue and Caroline Bergvall’s new book Drift, are also highly recommended.

In early May we had the rare (for us) opportunity to attend a Native American Feast Day in New Mexico. As outsiders, we had little access to information as to what symbols or dance gestures might mean.  But what was quite clear to us, was the fact that many humans have been continuously attuning themselves to the forces of the planet for thousands of years.  Physical processes of attunement are inherently coupled with mental and spiritual attunement, and they can create an inner space that, paradoxically, allows one to “leave” one’s narrow perspectives of “here” by attuning deeply to “here.”  We started to think that attuning to the immediate events of unfolding change in order to sense widely “out” from “here” and into the massive, interconnected forces that compose change itself might be the most vital skill/capacity to cultivate within our contemporary moment.

On the other side of these experiences, we’re left with a weighty sensation. The release from naive or false hopes that big fast material planetary changes upon us might be reversed, ushers in an ability to create highly vital works that embody a psychological state that is actually OF this change — that is itself within this change, nothing less or more.  This release feels like a maturation. We are among the first humans to accept that material realities that afforded our evolution on this planet have irrevocably passed — and we are still living.  Authors/artists/humans who share this sensibility are no longer attempting to “save the planet” or ourselves from anything.  We’re no longer “seeking solutions” or attempting to imagine creative responses to our carbon problem or rising sea levels. There is nothing that can resolve or erase what some realize is already here.

Instead, we’re charged with the imperative to navigate and adapt to change as it unfolds. We’re finding that on the other side of this acceptance are days filled with gratitude. We expect less, and we’re able to be newly aware of and accepting what’s here (and not here) already, right now. It’s very likely that events we build expectations for will be cut short, not go according to plan, or even disappear altogether (be it the last almond from California, the last can of tuna or gallon of gasoline or potable water). It is we humans who have ensured the untimely disappearance of incalculable affordances within a remarkably short span of time. Each day is laced with beauty in its inevitable passing. There’s a rolling wave of gratitude, with a still center, that acknowledges there’s more to come and that this isn’t only about us — as individuals or as a species. From here, we begin to imagine appropriate rituals. We become humans in-the-midst of redesigning our lives to be with the changes as gracefully as possible as we tune-up our inner selves.


We’re sincerely grateful to the Center for Land Use Interpretation and the Santa Fe Art Institute, whose support over the past month have afforded us the space and time to begin new directions. Thanks too, to Ruth Ozeki and Oliver Kellhammer for passing off Granta Issue 127 at just the right time.

Relay Continues, Look Only at New Mexico
05.07.2014, 11:08 am
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The relay of the exhibition of our project, Look Only at the Movement, has now arrived at the third of its five venues — the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI). The show runs through June 12th. While in Santa Fe we have been graciously welcomed and hosted as artists-in-residence at SFAI.  We are happy to announce a public gallery talk in conjunction with the exhibition at the Art Institute on May 12th. All are welcome!

We’re especially honored to have the show open here given the depth of atomic history in New Mexico, ranging from the Manhattan Project and Trinity Test to the ongoing environmental challenges facing the clean-up of Los Alamos and uranium tailings around the state. Perhaps most relevant to our work is the recent closure of WIPP, a key site for our project, due to a radiation leak — something  we never could have predicted when we began this project nearly three years ago.


In addition to welcoming responses to our work at upcoming artist talks, we also invite visitors to relay comments in the traveling response book as part of the exhibition.  We look forward to receiving local feedback about the project. As we have expressed in our statement for the project, by looking only at the movement of nuclear waste, we have tried to redirect polarized discourses that often “cloak” nuclear materials. We encourage new angles of civic exchange by inviting audiences to engage with contemporary material realities that are simultaneously of us, and far beyond us.

We’re also pleased to pass on a link to a recent interview of smudge that discusses the project.  It was conducted by Sara Jacobs and Emily Gordon and appears today in BOMB magazine online.





On Change #6: Culture at a Crossroads
04.25.2014, 11:48 am
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Truck transporting TRU waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 2012, still from Look Only at the Movement

For the next three weeks, smudge/FOP is based in Santa Fe, NM. While here, we’re catching up with the local New Mexican news, which includes the latest updates on “the radioactive puff” released from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) last February. In case you’re not familiar, WIPP is our nation’s only geologic repository for nuclear waste and specifically handles transuranic waste, not the high-level waste produced through nuclear power generation. The high-level waste continues to accumulate and shelter-in-place at hundreds of sites around the country.

The WIPP facility has been closed since the incident on February 14, 2014. Since then, there’s been scarce information about what happened and what has been done to address the accident (updated EPA reports can be found here). Wednesday night we tuned in to a live-stream town hall meeting from Carlsbad to learn the current status of the “recovery” (what caused the release stills appears to be a mystery) and to hear  a representative from the Department of Energy (DOE) disclose that the accident was entirely preventable, and had resulted from a long list of inefficiencies including poor of training, faulty design, disorganized protocols and lack of preparation. (download the full EPA report here)

93_WIPPcontainers TRUPACT-II containers in parking lot outside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 2012, still from Look Only at the Movement

What we found most notable was a remark describing worker culture at WIPP as being “more akin to that of a traditional mine than that of a nuclear facility.” Apparently most workers had no previous work experience in handling nuclear materials or nuclear waste storage. We find this surprising, given the extraordinary ways in which WIPP differs from a mine, perhaps most fundamentally in its mandate for isolating the enclosed materials from the environment for 10,000 years.

Yet, we can empathize with the workers, designers and engineers of this facility. There is no precedent to follow for maintaining deep geologic repositories for radioactive waste in the United States, especially those nested 2000 feet deep within enormous salt deposits, though there are less than encouraging examples to consider in Germany.

It seems important at this moment of change at WIPP that its workers be trained in the highly nuanced and complex skill sets required for preventing and handling nuclear accidents.  It also seems important to remember that right now, we are always, already, handling materials that exceed our human capacities to shepherd them into their — and our — deep futures.   We’re at the very beginning of an extremely long-term project (millennia, at minimum) of stewardship. We’re past the point of reversing our actions, so we must adapt  and attempt to meet these material realities — while recognizing that when we work with nuclear materials we’re engaging complex events of change that set themselves apart from other activities, such as mining, in exquisitely potent ways.

chihuChihuahuan desert along Highway 285 in southern New Mexico, still from Look Only at the Movement




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