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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unleash the Geologic Imagination
01.23.2015, 1:48 pm
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smudge/FOP is honored to be one of the presenters at the upcoming Sonic Acts Festival in Amsterdam.  The theme of the 2015 festival is “The Geologic Imagination”:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redirecting Focus
12.13.2014, 5:10 pm
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13762000333_0a157fc40f_zFlooding in the UK (February 2014) cc image: UK Ministry of Defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Dust of this Planet
11.17.2014, 9:30 pm
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NTS_dustdust storm near the Nevada Test Site, smudge studio 2009

If you haven’t heard Radiolab’s recent episode mapping the transformative journey of theorist/philosopher/teacher Eugene Thacker’s book, In the Dust of the Planet through the vagaries of popular culture, here’s the link.

The book, In the Dust of this Planet, is a heady endeavor taking up concepts and expressions of nihilism in culture (horror films, black metal etc.). As the promo page at ZERO Books explains, Thacker’s work takes up, “those moments when philosophical thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own existence.”

We were captivated by the Radiolab program on many levels, but perhaps most by the provocation at about two to three minutes into the podcast. There, the program introduces what Friedrich Nietzsche suggested might be the most “difficult” thoughts:  that the world around us doesn’t care about us, our existence might an “accident,” there “is no order to the cosmos,” therefore our lives are meaningless, making reality a “horror.”

Around minute 15, the Radiolab piece references contemporary planetary realities. The host, Jad Abumrad, suggests that there is an “uncomfortable shift” unfolding in how we think about climate change.  It’s a shift from prevention into adaptation. A scientist on the program from the ICPP (PDF of recent report) admits that we’re now at the stage of not being able to stop it, and instead we need to “admit some degree of failure.” He continues to say that we are now “bending over backward to find ways to be optimistic,”but “the kinds of actions needed are so heroic that we aren’t going to see them on this planet.”  The program also points out that 76% of people over 18 years old aren’t “confident that the future will be brighter than the past.”

We pressed “pause” around this time and made, what was for us, a conceptual leap.  Based on what we had just heard, it seemed possible that many people have become so unmotivated to accept and act in response to the reality of climate change because doing so requires us to “hold the thought” that the planet is actually indifferent to our existence.

Nietzsche’s most horrific thoughts might be Eastern philosophy’s most inviting. We still have time and context for re-thinking myths of human-centered dominance perpetuated by Western philosophy.  Given the geologic reality that the planet isn’t only for or about us, the fact that we are still here could be viewed as a bit of miracle.  Our presence on Earth, as one evolutionary outcome of this planet’s volatile history, is a wildcard of sorts. Rather than making life seem meaningless, the precarious wildness of our very existence invites us to meet the questions and challenges of the Anthropocene by playing the wild potential we hold.

11.15.2014, 10:15 am
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“With severe weather events becoming more frequent and more extreme, it is more important than ever that New Yorkers are prepared for disasters and know what to do in an emergency.” – Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, 2014 State of the State Address

photofrom the Citizens Preparedness Corps training session at FIT on October 15, 2014

Last month FOP attended a New York State Citizen Preparedness Corps training session at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Our attendance resulted from both personal interest and from our ongoing research into how we might enact practices to meet changing planetary realities of the Anthropocene.

Local city council members introduced the evening’s program which was then run by members of the National Guard, creating a hands-on atmosphere. The primary message was: “it’s not a question of if, but when” the next event (storm, disaster or nuclear accident) will occur.  Individual readiness was strongly encouraged in recognition of the fact that New York City systems and rescue workers in place to help will likely become overwhelmed.

A couple of years ago, this program’s theme would have appeared somewhat “apocalyptic” to us.  But after Hurricane Sandy and the stream of less than encouraging headlines out of the IPCC, its seems we’ve traded in Hollywood projections of fictional disasters for the actualities of contemporary reality. What practices are meaningful to enact in response? How might we “hold the thought” that it’s becoming increasingly likely that we will have to enact some of the preparedness scenarios we were offered—and hold that thought without feeling depleted?  These are ongoing questions we (FOP/smudge) consider on a regular basis.

Though we appreciate the intentions of the anticipatory actions that the Citizens Corp invites, we question the idea of preparedness itself.  Some of the first words spoken at the gathering directed us toward the imporance of being “prepared in the case of unforeseen circumstances.” To us, this seems more than a little contradictory.  The  dictionary defines “prepared” as a state of being “properly expectant, organized and equipped.”  The auditorium was packed, no doubt in part because of the promise of a really nice backpack jammed full of affordances for being better equipped during the next event (batteries, vacuum packed food, flashlight, radio etc.).  But it’s hard to imagine how we might achieve a state of being “properly expectant” and organized for so much of what is to come. It seems acceptance of this difficulty might be the first step in rethinking how the idea and practice of preparedness itself needs to be updated to meet newly emerging realities. We have a long way to go as a culture to be able to let our responses to this difficulty breathe and take shape. Perhaps in addition to many gallons of water stowed under the bed, we need training in meeting the unexpected (improv, surfing), or perhaps in skills of oral storytelling so we can pass the hours without electricity more meaningfully.  There is a great deal of uncertainty circulating, so much so that preparation itself can seem futile. Still, the idea of safety and security is becoming increasingly valuable as more and more conversations shift from aiming to “stop” global warming to aiming to “adapt” to various scenarios in which, in the relatively near future, the planet is between 2-4 degrees warmer than today. How might we update ideas and actions of preparedness for this future?

Yet/and, we offer these official “Steps to Preparedness” in case you’d like to brush up on your readiness or attend a training event yourself.


Higashi for the Anthropocene
10.27.2014, 9:22 pm
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allHigashi for the Anthropocene and seasonal higashi, in collaboration with Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto) and Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo), smudge studio 2014

The project had humble beginnings. Our primary intention was to invite a small group of hybrid artist/practitioner colleagues into an experimental context.  They would be colleagues whose work we respected for how it addressed the challenges of the Anthropocene (ranging from work on the proliferation of plastic to extinction of species, climate chaos, the “thing” power of food, what it means to find one’s life work in the Anthropocene, imagining deep time, etc.).

Instead of talking about our work, sharing our latest projects, or assembling together for the purpose of creating “change,” we would simply pause together.  For an hour and a half we would offer our guests traditional Japanese matcha tea and sweets (higashi) in simple acknowledgment of, and gratitude towards, the fortitude they show by turning their lives and work toward instead of away from the complexities of planetary realities in the Anthropocene.

We chose higashi as our medium for this event because they are a tiny, dry confectionary that are materially sturdy enough to travel the nearly 7,000 miles from Kyoto, Japan. For centuries, Japanese sweets such as higashi have accompanied matcha tea at traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.  The offering and eating of the sweets inaugurates a point of pause and contemplation, and enacts generosity and gratitude shared among guests.

Notably, Japanese craftsmen have refined the designs of traditional higashi over hundreds of years to translate daily experiences of seasonal variation into edible forms.  The designs of the sweets (autumn leaves, spring cherry blossoms, grains of rice) invite guests to psychologically be with and move with seasonal change as it unfolds.

However, the sweets we would offer in our project would not be traditional higashi.

Higashi for the Anthropocene would be designed to suggest that the daily seasonal variations we are now experiencing in the Anthropocene constitute a “fifth season.”  This fifth season is marked by strange weather whose unseasonable events increasingly cut through, interrupt, and scramble the familiar weather events of the “traditional” four seasons.  Higashi for the Anthropocene would invite traditional tea sweets to intentionally turn, like us, towards the Anthropocene.  They would be designed to serve as apertures onto the Anthropocene.  We would use aspects of their color, form, and symbols to center our focus on the material and climate realities of the Anthropocene.  But at the same time, we would use higashi’s association with the hospitality, calmness, sweetness, and pleasures of the Japanese tea ceremony to turn us away from the all too readily available narratives about the Anthropocene.  The event would be designed to offer something other than steeping ourselves in the currently hyper-mediated sentiments such as despair, guilt, or heroism.

To materialize these intentions in the form of higashi for the Anthropocene, we asked Kagizen Yoshifusa, a 300-year old confectionary shop in Kyōto, and Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo) to collaborate with us.  Together, we would use the  medium of higashi to reimagine traditional seasonal designs and make them capable of acknowledging the now emerging, unseasonable fifth season.

We invited a special venue to support the gathering: Kajitsu restaurant.  Kajitsu specializes in shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian meals).  It serves New York City as much as a cultural institution as it does a restaurant.  Their seasonally attuned menus change monthly, and their special events celebrate centuries-old Japanese crafts and holidays which are often inspired by the seasons.


As smudge studio, we sensed an urgency to invent new ways to inhabit the Anthropocene in our daily lives.  We wanted to see if Higashi for the Anthropocene might prove to be an event that we could draw upon for inspiration and resiliency in coming months.  We suspect it might be the first of many practices we will invent in the near future — practices we design to help us (and maybe others) “hold the thought” of the Anthropocene as our contemporary condition, but do so without exhausting or depleting us.

Today, post-event, we believe that the project was a “success” in those ways.  We saw in our guests a palpable affirmation of the necessity of the project’s gestures, and we sensed sincere appreciation of attempts to find ways to live within emerging material realities, and in new ways.

We are grateful for our guests’ responsiveness and willingness to meet us in this experimental space;  to momentarily re-direct their time towards the explorations we made together through Higashi for the Anthropocene; and to meet us — even on a Saturday afternoon — once again, within the Anthropocene.

autumnblendtraditional autumn higashi, made by Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto), “spring” cherry blossom higashi made out of season for the project, by Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo)

For our guests, the story of how the ideas and intentions for this project ultimately took the material form of sugary sweets and were delivered to us in New York further qualified the candies as higashi of and for the Anthropocene.   Silently embedded within the bodies of the higashi themselves, and now within the guests who consumed them, are tales and journeys that also bespeak the Anthropocene.  It took eleven weeks to bring Higashi for the Anthropocene into the world.  Some aspects of their journey could be anticipated (such as the comedy and tragedy of Brooklyn international delivery).   Others, not.

When you look at Higashi for the Anthropocene, it’s easy to notice that they appear a little rough-hewn.  They co-exist awkwardly alongside traditional higashi whose forms and executions have been perfected over centuries.  But the candies/sculptures/objects in/of the Anthropocene were born of limits — limits of language, time, Anthropocene weather, international logistics and sugar itself.  A 14-hour time difference between New York and Kyoto ensured that all email communication for the project took place at times felt to be too early or too late in the day for messages to be meaningfully composed or absorbed. Our inability to communicate in grammatically correct Japanese greatly influenced the parameters of the project and its process. There were countless attempts to find the simplest and most direct ways to describe and communicate elusive qualities and sensations of the Anthropocene, so that the geologic epoch could then be abstracted into sugar form.  Even in English, we don’t have language that adequately captures the difference of the Anthropocene or that describes unfamiliar sensations of its unseasonable qualities. But this project led us to realize that striving or waiting for such language is not actually viable.  There isn’t time, and tasks are too urgent.  Many design expectations had to be let go of, and simultaneously, many improvised alternatives had to be spoken and drawn before they could be enacted.  As we forged ahead, We were humbled to realize that it is a substantial task to ask anyone, and any practice —  especially those that have been preserved and refined over centuries — to break their form for the purpose of turning towards/into the Anthropocene.

These tiny fragile candies have a carbon footprint of 7,000+ miles.  Their path towards the table at Kajitsu passed through the 19th and largest typhoon to affect Japan this year.  They are poignant material traces of moments of reinvention, re-assessment and reframing within unfolding Anthropocene events themselves.  Perhaps what is most telling about this project as a gesture of acknowledgement toward the Anthropocene, is that these candies were brought into being by a host of unrelated people who worked across great distance and differences to address something none of us fully understood. As limits were reached, the project did not collapse, but reshaped itself to what became possible when we turned at those limits and proceeded with a difference.  The outcomes were generative failures of translation and intention.  They were then gifted to, and consumed by, a bold and creative group of humans who are daring to turn into the Anthropocene.

JamiesHigashi for the Anthropocene, designs by Jamie Kruse, produced by Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto)

tablekatopeopleHigashi for the Anthropocene, Kajitsu restaurant, October 25, 2014

tablelongshotHigashi for the Anthropocene, Kajitsu restaurant, October 25, 2014

Please see smudge studio project page for details on the higashi designs.

Guests for the event included: Heather DavisElizabeth EllsworthEvie GarfLisa HirmerJamie KruseRachel SussmanNicola Twilley and Marina Zurkow.

Remote recipients of Higashi for the Anthropocene were:
Jane Bennett, Michele Sorensen and Valerie Triggs.

*Special thanks also to Zenya Imanashi (Kagizen Yoshifusa) Motohiro Inaba (Wagashi Asobi), Riichiro Kato (Ippodo Tea) and the entire staff at Kajitsu restaurant.

** Sincere gratitude to Valerie Triggs and Michele Sorensen for project support.