Meeting Forces Larger Than Ourselves: Amulets for Infrastructure
03.18.2012, 10:30 pm
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first round of Amulets for Infrastructure, image FOP 2012

Next week we head to Kyoto, Japan to kick off Amulets for Infrastructure. Over the last couple of weeks we fashioned our first series of paper amulets for the project (described further here).

For us, the Amulets for Infrastructure project is less about the idea of “luck” sometimes associated with the concept of amulets or talismans, and more a reminder of ancient knowledges that tell of the power of nonhuman forces to shape and sometimes unseat human plans, including human-built structures and infrastructures.  With Amulets for infrastructure, we hope to help extend awareness that future infrastructures and built environments need to be designed and used with geologic earth forces in mind.  This awareness is something that a number of people have said was “forgotten” in the design and building of infrastructures directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year. Nuclear power plants located at the edge of the ocean and enormous sea walls designed to deflect tsunamis gave false senses of security, and ultimately failed.

This project addresses the reality that complex and networked infrastructures of daily life put humans in relation to forces much larger than ourselves in fundamentally new ways. Through Amulets for Infrastructure we ask, “Together, how will we meet this new reality?”

Soon we’ll be distributing our paper amulets and inviting people in Japan (and elsewhere) to adapt and augment them.  During the next month, we plan to document our invitations to collaborators in Japan to make their own Amulets for Infrastructure  /インフラのお守り(infura no omamori).

The omamori we’ve created are about 4″ x 2″ and are the perfect size to hold a standard business card sized wish, photo, momento, or story inside.  The amulets that we will distribute in Japan will have this card folded inside:

The project’s page on our website has a 5.5″ x 6.5″ omamori template that you can download and fold, origami style, into your own omamori envelope.  You can watch this great DIY video to learn how to fold the origami “bar envelope” that we’ve used for ours.  We are also inviting people to send us documentation of the omamori that they make, and stories about their relationship to the infrastructure they are addressing with their omamori.

While in Kyoto, we will engage with these realities with people who live in places relatively far from the Tōhoku region. Today, the behavior of an infrastructural grid or node in one place often has ramifications for entire regions, and sometimes the entire globe.  Our intentions are that this project will also function practically.  We hope it might contribute to efforts now being made to ensure that assumptions about infrastructures such as tsunami walls and power plants—assumptions that added to the suffering in Tōhoku and elsewhere—are questioned and redirected so that such suffering might be avoided or lessened in the future.

Words from the chairman of the Kyoto University of Art and Design from 1999 still ring true on the eve of our departure:

“I believe that the courage to embark on the grand experiment and adventure of resurrecting the human spirit-grounded in the ideas and wisdom of the East-together with the ongoing study and exploration of art and culture can lead humanity toward a future filled with hope. I hope that the drumbeat for a revival of the arts emanating from here in Kyoto will stir the spirit of Japan quietly but deeply, and I pledge to make this a new beginning.”

Shochoku Tokuyama
Chairman, Uryuyama Gakuen
October 27, 1999


Between April 9-13th, we’ll be relaying work in progress from the Amulets for Infrastructure project to Sudbury, Canada.  There, the Canadian collaborative Dodolab will be facilitating a sister project entitled Amulets for Sudbury project.  Together, we hope the two projects will create a transcultural, transglobal exchange between people in Kyoto and people in Sudbury.  Stay tuned to the FOP blog and our twitter feed (@geoturn) for project reports.

Amulets for Infrastructure Project
01.22.2012, 6:11 pm
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Jichinsai (地鎮祭), a ground breaking ceremony in Japan, July 2010, image

In Japan, it’s common to pay respect to kami (spirits, natural forces, or essence in Shinto faith) before constructing buildings. The Jichinsai ritual, is a purification ceremony considered necessary to clear away bad luck that might be connected to a plot of land.  A shinto priest (kannushi,) is commonly present to pray for safety, happiness, and protection of the designated area from disaster.

Throughout history, humans have felt it necessary to acknowledge that what we build exists in relation to forces much larger than ourselves.  Think Stonehenge, the Mayan Temple of Kukulkan and Chaco Canyon, with their complex celestial alignments.

Our building know-how may have grown phenomenally over the past several millennia, but sometimes it is still no match for the planet’s geological or meteorological events.

Modern humans rely on ever more complex and networked infrastructures. How would any New Yorker manage daily life without the City’s 2,027 bridges and  24+ tunnels? 60,000 elevators? 24 subway lines? Or perhaps most essential of all, the Department of Sanitation? The lifestyles we attempt to maintain are intimately entwined with materials and actions that keep cars running, highways paved, and bridges sound. If our roofs don’t keep out rain and wind, our homes and apartments start to lose structural integrity in a matter of weeks.

lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge, FOP 2007

elevator shaft, image icopythat

Humans have built vast infrastructural networks across the globe. Without the “grid” and its wildly complex components of generation, transmission and distribution, pretty much nothing would operate at all. While it may be impossible to design for all scenarios and all scales of event, it’s also a fact that the things we build are subject to more than one force at a time. Wind, rain, usage, and time itself weather materials in uneven, unpredictable patterns. Humans introduce additional elements of uncertainty. It’s not uncommon for human folly to set in motion some of the most disasterous infrastructural events. The more we rely on infrastructures for the largest and smallest aspects of contemporary life (light, heat, food, transit, health care etc. etc.), the more our very lives become vulnerable to unpredictable outcomes when our systems encounter forces beyond what was planned for or desired.

Last March, the six hundred+ year old Japanese tsunami warning stones perched above much of the disaster’s wreckage were stark reminders that humans might be forgetting one of our most vital bits of socially inherited knowledge: all infrastructure projects must be designed and sited in relation to essentially unpredictable and potentially destructive forces larger than ourselves, because even the best designs and technologies can fail to predict, prevent, or defend against these forces.

tsunami stone, Aneyoshi, Japan, image  Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

This spring, we will continue to work with these newly-urgent realizations as we spend a month in Japan. While based in Kyoto, we will engage in a cross-continental collaboration with DodoLab, the Canadian art and design program.  DodoLab will be continuing their project on infrastructures of mineral extraction in Sudbury, Ontario (a place we’re written about twice on FOP, here and here).

The name of our shared exploratory endeavor is Amulets for Infrastructure or インフラ 御守  in Japanese. The project is predicated on the acknowledgement that all human-designed architecture and infrastructures never have been, and never will be, immune to forces of change.

Our project is inspired by omamori, small pouches that many Japanese people use in ways similar to how some Westerners use talismans (from Greek “telein” which means “to initiate into the mysteries”).  Omamori are made sacred by religious rituals that transform them into busshin (spiritual offshoots) or kesshin (manifestations) of the deity. They are objects that contain the spiritual essence and powers of a deity or buddha, and they are usually carried on one’s person, backpack or purse. These small amulets can be purchased at shrines and temples all over Japan. They offer their owners protection and good luck. It’s common for students to secure at least one before taking exams, or for a new one to be purchased at the start of each year. Some omamori are designed to provide traffic safety, others to ensure a safe pregnancy.

But as far as we know, there hasn’t yet been an omamori dedicated, broadly, to infrastructure writ large.

traditional omamori

Our trans-cultural collaboration and creative interpretation of omamori will be a humble, material acknowledgement of the reality that our planet is full of dynamic forces capable of serving up compounding impacts that can overwhelm and out scale our best attempts at infrastructural design.

Over the course of two weeks in early April smudge studio and DodoLab will stage talisman/omamori projects in our respective locations. This will include the soliciting of images (photographic, diagrammatic, poetic) and stories pertaining to infrastructures that people would like to have protected (infrastructures that carry a particularly personal meaning or proximity are most welcome). We’ll also gather site-specific data and responses related to our given locations (Sudbury and Kyoto/Tokyo). Possible “things” of inclusion in the “amulets for infrastructure” projects include: elevators, mine shafts, cars, bridges, roads, post offices, heating pipes, internet cables, the electrical “grid,” nuclear power plants, and perhaps even infrastructures to come, such as deep geologic repositories for nuclear waste.

Shinkansen, aka bullet train, in Tokyo Japan, FOP 2008

Second level of Creighton Mine, Sudbury, Canada [ca. 1905], Department of Mines and Northern Affairs, Reference Code: RG 13-30, Archives of Ontario, I0004649

The results of the collaboration will be developed in late spring and early summer, and then exhibited publicly in Canada, the United States, and Japan. Additional project details will come as available, so stayed tuned for more information on how to participate.

To us, it seems obvious that this project’s time has come. The global infrastructures that we rely on need more than a bit of luck, perhaps even a bit of divine intervention, to safely endure the coming decades of climate change, stalled economies, and unforeseeable geologic events. A quick Google search of “infrastructure and luck” shows that we aren’t the only ones thinking this way:

“We are using up our reservoir of good luck,” said Richard Brodsky, a former New York State legislator who last week lost a lawsuit on the level of insulation required around electrical cables at Indian Point. “The chances of an accident at Indian Point are small but the consequences are so dramatic.” – ABC news

“If that satellite goes, our space weather prediction system will be crippled. We got off light with the solar storm this time, but our luck will run out eventually—and possibly quite soon, because the current solar cycle is set to peak over the next couple of years. A “Space Katrina” could be inevitable—at the very least we should be able to see it coming. – Time magazine

Bay Bridge’s Run of Bad Luck Meanwhile you might want to dig up that old troll doll from your bottom drawer. Keep it beside you in the car to give the Bay Bridge some new good luck.”

“The Evergreen Point Floating Bridge on Lake Washington, Washington had an 11-year run of bad luck. The pontoon bridge’s deck cracked open in 1989, then again in 1991. Then, eight years later, strong winds split the bridge in two. In 2000, it was damaged by a collision.” – NPR