The following is a list of all entries from the Project Updates category.
This year, there has been an explosion of Anthropocene themed events: academic conferences, design shows and particularly art exhibitions, it seems. And there are more in the making: The Deutsches Museum in Munich is preparing the exhibition ‘Anthropocene – Nature and Technology in the Age of Humans’, the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute has announced a symposium entitled ‘Society in the Anthropocene’ and publishing giant Elsevier is launching an ‘Anthropocene’ journal in 2013.
What is the Anthropocene? The Anthropocene is not a fixed geological epoch as yet, but rather a proposal for one. Coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and popularised by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the term translates as ‘The Age of Man’ or ‘The Age of Humans’. It basically implies that humans have come to dominate geo-physical activity on Earth and are affecting phenomena such as the planet’s climate at an unprecedented level. So far, scientists have not been able to agree on a date when the Anthropocene is supposed to have started: with the industrial revolution and its emission/population spike – or with the invention and proliferation of agriculture? I am not sure what exactly was submitted to the Geological Society in London in 2008, but whatever it was, the verdict is still out. In any case, the concept is increasingly gaining traction in popular discourse.
Why am I interested in this? First of all, most geographers are keeping an eye on the debate, because that’s their job: to keep up with what’s going on with our planet and how we (or other creatures) might deal with this information (e.g. migrate, change government, die out, adopt a new philosophy or life-style, change breeding patterns, do geo-engineering etc). But within this interest, there are obviously different areas that geographers are looking at. As I also teach in art and design, I am particularly invested in how artists and designers are engaging with the Anthropocene. Again, there is a huge diversity of creative projects. Some are more commercially orientated, in that they seek to take advantage of the potential new requirements of a new epoch. Others are more theoretical, for instance, redirection of architectural interest towards a double bind of land and form. And still others are overtly political, in trying to prompt a rethinking and remaking of current ways of living. (Will the frame of the Anthropocene help in this endeavour?)
What interests me most, at the moment, is the navigation between two areas: the geo-political, by which I mean the future of global politics and their response to planetary changes, and what at many events has been called the ‘geo-poetic’: ways of relaying the vast spatio-temporalities implicit in thinking geologically. When artists and other people produce Anthropocene-themed work, these areas often intersect, with varying emphases. It appears to be very much the same scenario as with, for instance, exhibitions on new technologies or environmental issues which fall into the category of ‘invisible risk’: artwork, computer games or other media trying to make tangible the scales we cannot experience (whether this is the atomic or the global scale), the causalities and consequences we cannot grasp (how do pesticides end up in Antarctic penguins? How come we cannot prove that leukemia cases near nuclear powerstations are causally related?) or the future trajectories we could help shape (e.g. the difficulty of taking action for far future intergenerational justice).
Indeed, a theme that unites the majority of Anthropocene art and design based events is the capacity of these fields to ‘sensitise’ their audiences to their new role as a geological actant. As the artists from Smudge Studio put it, through their exhibitions they wished to make people aware that ‘geologic time is not composed of us – we are composed of it’. Many other examples were described in symposia such as ‘The Geologic Turn’ (organised by Etienne Turpin at the University of Michigan) or ‘The Geological Turn’ (organised by artist Gabo Guzzo with London’s Banner Repeater Gallery). These ranged from rocks as an object of scientific, philosophical and popular interest (e.g. Jane Hutton, D Graham Burnett, Edward Eigen), confetti cannons in which ‘each piece of paper matched to the colours of the brightest explosions in the universe’ (Katie Paterson’s 100 Billion Suns), the exponential curve as the new cultural meme (Seth Denizen) to the interactive creation of new representative diagrams for our era (Gabo Guzzo).
The question that poses itself for me could be phrased as: ‘what happens after all this sensitisation?’ From my previous work, I have inherited the following tension: on the one hand, I have become extremely cynical about the ability of creative practice/affective methods to facilitate change/action/re-thinking by itself. Other things around it have to happen. In my work on public engagement with nanotechnology, I found that no matter now much creative practice you embed, if the channels that recognise or can process the outcomes of these creative engagements are not in place, nothing much at all happens (and what these creative practices represent to the audiences involved, of course, plays another role, but that is the subject for another post/article). On the other hand, it can be argued that ‘poetic interventions’ can help gather people round an issue – and these people can then put on pressure so that these channels are put into place. Working with this tension, I am trying to think about ways that artists, designers, social scientists can productively engage with it, especially when called on to put together ‘official’ public engagements.
Rather than just looking at the interactions between art, politics and theory today, I am also guided in this endeavour by looking at theory-art relations at the turn of the last millennium, where people were wrestling with a change of world view brought on by a move from classical to non-classical physics and the transition from imperialist regimes to (democratic/totalitarian) nation states. At this time, the early and mid-20th-century, an explosion of creativity occurred, which also tried to bring into dialogue the geo-poetic and geo-political. The unifying theme of this time appears to have been the ‘inhuman’ of both matter and human interactions (I have started to explain this in my article ‘Negotiating the Inhuman: Bakhtin, Materiality and the Instrumentalisation of Climate Change, forthcoming in Theory, Culture and Society in March 2013), addressed by authors such as Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Simone Weil – and artists in all fields, from music to painting (Artaud, Brecht, Meyerhold, Schoenberg, Auden, Dali, Duchamp…). Often, close links existed between artists and theorists. Here, the question for me is: what can we learn from these past experiments? What can we learn as artists, theorists, public engagement practitioners?
I will post regular updates on the project, including relevant events and calls for submissions. Comments or e-mails are, as always, appreciated.
While uploading my Sounds Like Detroit podcast, I also created an open Soundcloud group called Geography Podcasts. This imaginatively titled group seeks to function as a resource and discussion platform, to to share and bring together geographically informed sound work, including landscape recordings, lectures, commentary, educational programmes, fiction, experimental pieces. Please share, if you know any sonically minded geographers.
The first track on there is my Sounds Like Detroit podcast for the Imaging Detroit project:
For those who are more on the visually attentive side, the film version of Sounds Like Detroit can be found here:
(for some reason this low res version has a glitch in the end titles that the hi res version doesn’t…)
Here is the blurb from the Imaging Detroit programme:
‘Sounds Like Detroit operates at two levels. Playing with the visual and musical representation of Detroit, it asks: what is generic and what is unique about Detroit? Does its uniqueness perhaps lie in its ability to reflect back the commonalities people want to see? What is the ‘spirit of Detroit’ and can it be present in other places?’
For more information on the project, please visit MODCaR.org.
‘So, what brings you to this place of Post-Fordism?’ Somewhat confusingly, I was asked this question not in Detroit, but at a Jamaican food stall in Hulme, Manchester. Having literally just returned from Detroit, this felt like an odd reprise – as did seeing the ruined entrails of the Hulme Hippodrome where my band was performing at a fundraiser for Youth Village. It seemed like an apt place to write something on a very different festival, Imaging Detroit, which was put on at Detroit’s Perrien Park by MODCaR, a ‘coalition of builders, writers, designers, photographers, teachers, filmmakers, landscapers, graphic designers and students’ founded by architects Mireille Roddier, Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges and sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (TCAUP). Having lost my notes somewhere in the dark while fiddling with the film projector, I have to reconstruct things from memory. (I hope I do get the chance to listen back to all of the panels, although there were many irretrievable informal conversations going on in the park, between and amongst Detroiters and visitors.)
For those who have not read my earlier posts, I participated in the Imaging Detroit festival as a MODCaR fellow, contributing a short ‘illustrated podcast’ called ‘Sounds Like Detroit’. The festival aimed to draw attention to – and discuss – what could be described as a ‘representation war’ over the city. So far, the people at MODCaR have unearthed over 150 documentaries on the birthplace of Fordism, most of them produced in the last few years: by activists, artist, film-makers from inside and outside Detroit, and, more recently, by big corporations.
About fifty of those films were debated by the Imaging Detroit audience and so called ‘discourse jockeys’ (moderators/discussants) under the six most prominent film themes: Culture Now!, Productive Pastoral, Reboot, Post-America, Do-it-together and Pride. Since these representations continue to affect Detroiters in a myriad of ways, the discussions often became very agitated and emotional. Due to my inability to give a summary of the entire event, I will focus on the term that most stuck with me: experimentation – a term that is currently proliferating in academic and activist circles, an empassioned example being Doreen Massey’s recent call for experimentation at the ‘Maps for an Island Planet’ event.
Discourse jockeys Brandon Walley, Miguel Robles-Duran, Andrew Herscher, Cornelius Harris, Cezanne Charles, David Adler on the ‘Culture Now!’ panel.
Detroit has often been described as a socio-economic experiment. Its mythical chief experimenter, Henry Ford, has become associated with the proliferation of a new mass production system, technological innovation, intrusive worker control (through the company’s own ‘Sociological Department’), encouragement of working class property ownership and the staging of Ford’s own version of industrial history in the Greenfield model village. Detroit’s infrastructure, characterised by isolated neighbourhoods (dis)connected by freeways, counts as a combined experiment in car culture promotion and racial segregation.
At Imaging Detroit, experimentation featured strongly as a theme in both panels and films. While some people saw themselves as victims of capitalist/corporate/white American experimentation, others asserted the role of the experimenter. Those that regarded themselves as experimented on often voiced hope for an influx of either large or small businesses in order to normalise the city. The experimenters, on the other hand, made clear that Detroiters were not powerless guinea pigs, but in fact leading the way in matters such as civil rights, workers rights and alternative imaginaries against corporate America. Obviously, no neat separation between experimenters and experimented could be traced, as people frequently felt part of both positions: as victims of a ‘shock doctrine’ approach to public services (to use the words of activist Shea Howell who, I think also suggested that ‘those people who keep arguing for less government involvement in their lives should all move to Detroit!’*), and as people who are honing tactics against and beyond it. –* a reader has pointed out that the ‘less government involvement’ comment was not made by Shea Howell, but by Margi Dewar. Apologies!
So why Detroit? Coming across to me from the different and differing voices during the festival was a sense that it is exactly this history of inequality and aggressive advertisement of individualist consumer culture that serves as a provocation to try something else. Audrey Hunter, an interviewee in the film ‘Détroit, un rêve en ruine’, gave an example of the inspiration that many black activists in the city draw on: the tension between the concepts they associate with ‘African’ and ‘American’. For experimenters such as her, the African symbolises the ‘we/us/our whereas the American signifies ‘I/me/mine’:
‘As long as you keep functioning as an individual, we can’t even take advantage of the blight to take control of our community, to build what it is that we won’t build.’
This image was occasionally evoked against the perceived media stereotype of Detroit as being ‘full of enterprising young white people and… then there are these ‘soulful’ black people’ (discourse jockey Cornelius Harris). The question of control, or rather the struggle over control of representations of the city, was crucial to many debates.
This struggle, to me, was particularly made present through the series Detroit: Overdrive: loud, fast and ultra-high definition (the biggest file size in the whole programme), this adrenaline-inducing documentary comes as slick and corporate as it gets. Sponsored by General Motors and aired by the Discovery Channel’s ironically titled Planet Green, this documentary is clearly produced as a counter-narrative to both economic blight and alternative economics. It is interesting that, while many ‘blight’ stories seem intended mostly as cautionary fables for audiences outside of the city, Detroit: Overdrive sought to inspire both inside and outside. Advertised in downtown Detroit on huge billboards, the posters claimed: ‘This is your story – we are just telling it!’ And what is the story? Detroit as the continued seat of All-American commerce and innovation, now turning out products such as Kid Rock’s ‘Badass’ beer and Motor City themed designer jeans.
Image: Sven Gustafson, A Healthier Michigan
This strategy, to quote ‘discourse jockey’ and photographer Noah Stephens, can be summarised as: ‘Gentrify the popular imagination of Detroit.’ This may raise alarm bells with people in cities such as London where gentrification has very negative associations with misguided development, rarely benefitting those it claims to support, e.g. Docklands-like social segregation or higher rents forcing out the original population, something which, according to local film-maker Oren Goldenberg, is already happening in some parts of Detroit. In the case of Detroit: Overdrive, and documentaries in this vein, it felt as if the over-the-top, big budget representation of innovation as a driver of prosperity had been wheeled out as a piece of heavy artillery against the ramshackle army of comparatively lo-fi images of ridicule, doom and utopian visions (although, it has to be said, some low budget ‘gentrification’ attempts also exist). Like the media wars during the American presidential elections, the struggle for the supremacy of visions appears to be in full swing: whose vision will take hold of the popular imagination? Will alternative experiments stand a chance against the corporate PR machine? And what do these experiments consist of?
The latter question seems to be the most difficult, as it became evident from listening to all of the panels. There was a feeling that people from outside Detroit were attracted to the city precisely for this experimentation, but often just ‘parachuted in, talking and doing nothing’ (audience comment). In the first panel, the suggestion was made for Detroiters to network with other ‘experimental spaces’ in the world, to learn from one another’s unique strategies against common problems, and to disseminate this knowledge (e.g. discourse jockey Miguel Robles-Duran). Here, Sabine Gruffat’s film ‘I have always been a dreamer’, an unlikely comparison (at first glance) of Detroit and Dubai, provided food for thought. In this sense, Imaging Detroit did feel like a moment of learning and experimentation, albeit on a small scale. How much experimentation took place and will take place by its participants? This is difficult to track and perhaps an irrelevant question. What seems, on the other hand, more relevant, is that Detroit, as a place of exchanging and working on visions is, indeed, ‘open for business’.
Big THANK YOU to the whole MODCaR team for having me & to all who came and participated!
(Dear Readers: Feel free to post links to related projects/media in the comments!)
Please note time changes: festival now runs from 6pm – 4am on Friday, and 9am – 1am on Saturday.
Update from my summer fellowship. So far, research by the Metropolitan Observatory for Digital Culture and Representation (MODCaR) has unearthed over 150 documentaries on Detroit, most of them produced during the last few years – with more to come. In addition, MODCaR has also generated more material through its call for submissions. The Imaging Detroit festival is showing about 50 examples of those, across all angles. (Hmh, anybody up for putting on a follow-up festival on Detroit representations in film fiction?). My own contribution, Sounds Like Detroit, was produced as part of a MODCaR fellowship and compares Detroit with different parts of the UK. I will upload it here soon both as an audio podcast and video.
During the event, discussions with festival goers will take place, facilitated by invited DJs (discourse jockeys) from Detroit and beyond. There will also be a library with books on Detroit, an interactive art gallery, a Twitter station, music and food.
We also have arranged a live webstream for the festival, which will start as soon as the countdown goes to zero.
The schedule currently looks as follows:
FRIDAY, September 21
06:00 PM Bilal’s Stand
Sultan Sharrief, 2010 (85min)
07:25 PM Lean, Mean & Green
Carrie LeZotte & John Gallagher, 2012 (12min)
07:37 PM King Band Interviews
Iain Maitland, 2012 (7min)
07:44 PM Street Fighting Man
Andrew James, 2013 (16min trailer + excerpt)
08:00 PM I Have Always Been A Dreamer
Sabine Gruffat, 2012 (78min)
09:18 PM Theatre Bizarre: Documentary
Gary Bredow & Per Franchell, 2012 (5min trailer)
09:23 PM Motor City Pride
4exit4 production, 2011 (8min)
09:31 PM Detroit: Making It Better for You
Kyong Park, 2000 (10min)
09:41 PM People Mover
4exit4 production, 2011 (18min)
10:00 PM High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music
Gary Bredow, 2006 (64min)
11:04 PM Half(way) or 6 mile
Ellen Donnelly, 2009 (3min)
11:07 PM Redefining Dreamland
Brad Osantoski, 2011(74mins)
SATURDAY, September 22
12:21 AM Detroit: Murder City
Al Profit, 2008 (83min)
01:44 AM The Detroit Journal: True Stories about Real People
Episode 01: William Foster is a Good Man
The Detroit Journal, 2012 (16min)
02:00 AM Albert Kahn Architect Of Modern Times
Dieter Marcello, 1994 (85min)
03:25 AM Art From the Ashes: Detroit’s Heidelberg Project
Chris Metzler & Jeff Springer, 2010 (15min)
03:40 AM Slim’s Bike
Benjamin Miguel Hernandez and Chris Turner, 2004 (23min)
SATURDAY, September 22 (continued…)
09:00 AM The Kresge Foundation: 37 Artist Profiles in Detroit
Stephen McGee, 2012 (26min)
09:26 AM Detroit Bike City
Alex Gallegos, 2011(14min)
09:40 AM Détroit Ville Sauvage
Florent Tillon, 2010 (80mins)
11:00 AM A City to Yourself
Nicole MacDonald, 2008 (24min)
11:24 AM Total Detroit
Niegel Smith (6min)
11:31 AM 9 Businesses
4exit4 production, 2012 (7min)
11:38 AM Melbourne’s Detroit
Narda Shanley & Sky Seely, 2012 (9min)
11:47 AM Sounds Like Detroit
Angela Last, 2012 (7min)
11:54 AM Fallow City
Berenika Boberska (5min)
12:00 PM Brewster Douglass You’re my Brother
Oren Goldenberg, 2012 (28min)
12:28 PM Detroit: What Will It Take?
Allegra Pitera, 2012 (2min)
12:30 PM The VooDooMan of Heidelberg Street
Harvey Ovshinsky, 1990 (27min)
01:00 PM Conversation with Harvey Ovshinsky
01:20 PM Lemonade: Detroit
Erik Proulx, 2012 (18min)
01:38 PM Robocop Was Filmed Mostly in Dallas
David Gazdowicz, 2003 (5min)
01:43 PM The Packard Dogs – A Study of Contrasts
Tom McPhee (12min)
01:55 PM Coda Motor City
Kelly Parker, 2004 (16min)
02:11 PM Detroit Ruin of a City
Michael Chanan & George Steinmetz, 2005 (92min)
03:43 PM I Am From Detroit
Lester Spence & Kofi Boone, 2012 (9min)
03:52 PM We Are Not Ghosts
Mark Dworkin & Melissa Young, 2012 (53mins)
04:45 PM Regional Roots
Carrie LeZotte, 2009 (27min)
05:12 PM Nine Days Without Water
Stephen McGee, 2012 (13min)
05:25 PM Vacancy
Brandon Walley, 2006 (6min)
05:31 PM Everyone I Know
Brandon Walley, 2012 (5min trailer)
05:36 PM pulping detroit: on the road 2012
J.P. Maruszczak, 2012 (5min)
05:40 PM Grown in Detroit
Mascha & Manfred Poppenk 2009 (60min)
06:40 PM Creative Catalyst: Detroit and the Abandoned Packard Plant
Sharad Kant Patel, 2012 (9min)
06:49 PM Invisible City
Jack Cronin, 2006 (11min)
07:00 PM Real Scenes: Detroit
Patrick Nation & Daniel Higginson, 2011(19min)
07:19 PM Hill
Ben Wu & David Usui, 2012 (8min)
07:27 PM Détroit: Un Rêve En Ruine
Alexandre Touchette, 2010 (52mins)
08:20 PM Detroit in Overdrive (episodes 1&2)
Michael Selditch, 2011 (90min)
09:50 PM I Pity the Fool
Brent Coughenour, 2007 (90min)
11:20 PM Deforce
Daniel Falconer, 2011 (86min)
See you there!
Image source: MODCaR
Here is a preview of summer project No.2, my fellowship at the Metropolitan Observatory for Digital Culture and Representation (MODCaR). MODCaR describes itself as a ‘nomadic Michigan based non-profit research organisation’ that examines the relationship between the production of images and the production of city publics. To quote from their ‘mission':
‘Our charge is to explore visual narratives at the national and international scale and to render explicit the complex relationship between experience, the constructed image, meaning and the public.’
This statement resonates with my interest in the construction of particular spaces and their impact on the agency of publics (the nanoscale, the climate). Working with the ‘observatory’ seemed like an exciting platform to try out some new ideas.
Apart from analysing lots and lots of films on Detroit, MODCaR is organising a free, public film festival in Detroit showing documentaries on the city non-stop for two days. Entitled ‘Imaging Detroit’, the festival is intended to allow Detroiters to reflect upon the various forms their city has taken on in different contexts. Anyone can participate with a film, from established film-makers to primary school kids. The call for entries can be found here. I am also making a short film, with audio recordings of Londoners talking about their associations with Detroit. The festival will also feature discussions chaired by so-called ‘DJs’ (discourse jockeys), a mix of Detroit and non-Detroit based film makers, policy makers, urban analysts, art critics, activists, economists etc.
Image source: MODCaR, from ‘The MODCaR Guide to the Picturesque’
Below are the festival details, if you are planning on coming (you can also volunteer to help set up the festival grounds). A flyer/poster can also be downloaded here.
Imaging Detroit will open on September 21st at 6pm at Perrien Park,
between East Warren Avenue and East Hancock, Grandy and Chene streets
in the Near East Side neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan.
The event will run until midnight on Saturday, September 22nd
and is free and open to the public.
Contact information: email@example.com
MODCaR pamphlet downloadable here
The article revisions marathon has been completed, so now I can proceed with my summer experiments, of which ‘DIY City Branding’ is the first. The project draws on my research on public engagement with environmental controversies and new technologies, as well as my activist work in London. It emerges from an interactive photography project called ‘DIY Skyline’, in which people modify the skylines they can see from their windows and balconies. By placing objects of their choice in these places and photographing them against the sunset, a ‘home-made’ skyline is produced. ‘DIY Skyline’ could have been restaged with projectors in the gallery in a shadow puppet theatre like manner, but in the end I decided to take the opportunity to emphasise the discussion on city branding a bit more clearly.
What is city branding? After witnessing the success of New York’s ‘I love New York’ campaign’, which has been described as ‘a city branding itself out of a crisis’ (a great book on that is Miriam Greenberg’s ‘Branding New York: How A City In Crisis Was Sold To The World’), other cities are trying to follow this example (e.g. ‘I AMsterdam’). City Branding is not always connected to crisis management, but also to the desire to fix or change a city’s image in the public perception. The website ‘City Mayors’ states that there is nowadays an imperative for cities to become ‘successful brands’ (there is also a short article on the Guardian website here). If you google ‘city branding’, you will find many publications on the subject, including books, free leaflets and critical commentaries. The film ‘This Space Available’, recently screened and debated at the Open City Docs Fest at UCL, gave the example of Houston, Texas, which banned billboards and other excessive advertising signage in order to turn itself into a brand – a brand emphasising quality of life (‘even a tree becomes part of the brand’).
So how does ‘DIY City Branding’ work? Actually, part of it didn’t work! The idea was to put down several coats of a metallic primer (the black paint) which would allow us to paint over it and affix ‘iconic’ buildings made from magnetic sheet (the same that is used for fridge magnets). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the same paint we used in the trial, so naturally, the paint was too weak and the magnets didn’t stick. We had to make do with white tack. Basically, I took pictures of the London skyline from different places (the initial idea was to take them from ‘privileged views’ and ‘unprivileged views’, but that proved too confusing) and made stencils from them. These stencils were transferred onto the wall and painted over with white, so that, after the masking take was removed, only the black skyline(s) could be seen.
Next, a collection of ‘iconic’ skyscrapers, used in city branding, were turned into stencils (to scale with the skyline, so that sizes could be compared). These stencils were then used to make the magnetic buildings that people could add to the skyline to signify certain characteristics (‘progress’, ‘romance’ etc). They could also ‘commission’ new iconic buildings from one of the architects at the exhibition. Some visitors also used crayons (see last image in the post).
Underneath the skyline, a set of instructions called ‘City Branding in 10 easy steps’ could be found. Based on city branding leaflets available in the public domain, these ironic instructions sought to provoke debate about a very real issue: the role different publics in city branding. City branding publications emphasise the necessity to involve as many stakeholders as possible and not let big money rule (‘brand partnership’) – otherwise the brand is unlikely to work. At the same time, the reality often looks very different. The project tried to ask what could potentially be done with this zone in between: can different groups of Londoners use their role in city branding? Should it be a goal to participate in branding at all? What are the alternatives?
DIY City Branding was shown as part of UCL’s UrbanLaboratory’s Cities Methodologies 2012 exhibition, also accompanied by a public talk called ‘The ImageTM of the City’, which was jointly given by myself and Mireille Roddier from the University of Michigan (more about this in another post – you can see some of Mireille’s images from the exhibit on her Paris Je t’M blog). The talk was recorded for a podcast, so if it becomes available, I will link to it from here. For now, feel free to engage in your own ‘city branding’ discussion – no matter what shape it may take….
PS: Does anyone need any giant fridge magnets of iconic skyscrapers?? ;)
On a day where everybody is generously displaying their affections, sometimes in surprising ways, here comes another unexpected offering: the Mutable Matter Practitioner Handbook! The handbook is intended to introduce the project to people working in the field of public engagement with new technologies (especially nanotechnology). I have added ‘Version 1.0′ to the title to emphasise that it is a work in progress. Changes will be made on the basis of feedback.
The feedback will also inform publications on other experimental engagements that I have piloted and, of course, future experiments.
Image: ‘Sumision’ by Santiago Sierra
It is one week after the Terra Infirma workshop, and I am still processing the discussions. Others who attended seem to be, too, as I am still getting e-mails with ideas and questions. In this blog post, I will try to outline a few themes that came up during the day, and especially the remaining questions. An outline of the day can be found on Nicola Triscott’s blog.
The intention behind the workshop was to bring together different people who are using the word ‘geopolitics’ in ways that challenge the ‘commonsensical’ notion of the term, according to which the Earth either becomes a mere stage set for a narrative of ‘heroic men’ or a physicality at the service of discrimination against particular population groups. As Joanne Sharp pointed out at the beginning of her presentation, geopolitics is also identified with the task of ‘mapping troublespots’ and of working towards a ‘terra firma’ – stable ground. So, on the 27 January 2012, a group of geographers, scientists, artists, architects, policy researchers and others met up in an effort to ‘destabilise’ and, in particular, to ask: ‘what does the ‘geo’ in geopolitics’ actually do?
The first destabilising agents were identified as the kinds of things that are excluded from the dominant interpretation of geopolitics. In the introduction to the workshop, I grouped these exclusions into three strands: the exclusion of physical earth forces and phenomena in politics, of ‘marginal’ voices and of particular practices. Biopolitics, which gives a particular image of how physical and political life are intertwined, constituted a second point of departure. The relation with biopolitics raises questions what a corresponding geopolitics might do and whether it is perhaps already in existence, for instance, if one considers the managing of issues such as climate change or natural resources. Here, the concern was how to avoid or counteract social Darwinist links between the ‘bio’ and the ‘geo’ and the political, and instead take on the problematic, as Andrew Barry put it, of the ‘nagging interference between the natural and the social’, which is present in geography and, one could argue, in geopolitics.
Climate change – and especially the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ – featured prominently in the workshop as motivation for rethinking politics. Explorations of this theme began with references to geographer Simon Dalby and his critique of geopolitics. Dalby, in turn, was criticised for not challenging geopolitics enough, by maintaining a focusing on ‘horizontal connections’. Proposed alternatives included ‘vertical’ or ‘temporal’ thinking (‘when do I belong?’), as in Irit Rogoff’s sense of ‘terra infirma’. For some speakers and participants, ‘terra infirma’ also implied that not an ‘anchoring in the Earth’ was needed, but an ‘unanchoring’; not ‘grounding’, but a focus on the dynamism of our planet. Against this background, geopolitics morphed into a concern about choices and limits: ‘what we can or can’t do differently’ on/with our planet. Related contributions focused on ‘stratigraphic anxieties’ – the fear of becoming ‘just another geological stratum’, highlighted the asymmetry of the agency of Earth forces and humans (in both ways) and called for attention to a ‘non-vitalist materiality’. An example of the latter involved humanity’s continuing ‘becoming with’ minerals/fossil fuels, adding a further dimension to our struggle with fossil fuel dependence.
Questions in this context addressed the usefulness of attending to non-human agency (particularly the ‘non-vital’) in politics, the impact of fusing of the represented and the representing subject in the naming of the ‘Anthropocene,’ and the danger of using the term politics in connection with the physicality of the Earth. The example of geo-engineering raised further concerns, such as the use of military language around ‘pre-emptive’ efforts to make climate change happen on particular human terms. As a technology, which seems to be most intimately tied up with the planet’s physical and political fate, it invited discussions about the effects of its different modes of application on human identity (as ‘makers of climate’). Here, questions around the responsibilities of governance and ethics of experimental trials were raised, as well as questions around access, creation and levels of control. Questions that did not get answered (directly at least), due to time constraints, included:
- Given the problematic genealogy of the term ‘geopolitics’ – with its tradition of physical features determining politics – and the normal hesitancy around using the term, why would you want to use it in connection with geology, geography, human origin stories etc? Are the dangers that this kind of connection gets abused for ‘crude’ determinist politics not too great, especially, as geography has often been portrayed as an ‘aid to statecraft’ (e.g. Mackinder)?
- In what ways is climate change instrumentalised differently as a ‘threat’ by governments etc, for instance, compared to the War on Terror? Is its potential for provoking a rethinking of global politics suppressed or redirected in certain ways?
(Note: in a post-workshop discussion on this topic, it was suggested that what we may be seeing is an uncanny mobility and flexibility of neoliberal experiments in filling the space opened by climatic/geological events – an example being the reorganisation of the school system after Hurricane Katrina e.g. criticised by Naomi Klein as disaster apartheid).
A meeting ground between the different approaches to ‘geopolitics’ seemed to be found in feminist theory, and particularly in its attention to corporeality. According to my notes, the most often named theorist in the workshop overall (both by speakers and other participants) was Judith Butler. Her work was regarded as inviting an engagement with subjects within networks of power and as highlighting problematic connections between bio- and geopolitics. A further benefit of feminist theory was seen in attention to the margins (e.g. the work of bell hooks) and in highlighting the tension between the need to ‘embed practices of the everyday’ and ‘not losing the bigger picture’. Examples cited included the ‘bodily challenge’ to systems of geopolitical violence (e.g. setting oneself on fire) and the embodiment of this violence in particular ‘villains’, and the attention to the ‘bio’ and the ‘geo’ in the work of Elizabeth Grosz.
Post-colonial theory and its notion of the ‘subaltern’ was mentioned as a source of challenge to traditional geopolitics’ language of ‘inside/outside’, and as a lens which flagged up already existing conflations of the ‘bio’ and the ‘geo’ (e.g. how bodies are marked, controlled to ‘stay in place’; Orientalism etc). This particular theme further emphasised the link between bio- and geopolitics and depoliticisation: how (real or perceived) physical ‘misery’, ‘crisis’ or ‘geographical disadvantage’ is utilised to justify intervention and place the ‘physical’ issue above politics. The rhetoric of ‘doing whatever is necessary to remedy the situation’, and doing away with the usual political conventions, was shown to render people as politically inactive, as almost ‘already dead’ (‘homo sacer’ status). This post-political stance, and its systemic and anonymous nature of violence/denying agency, was seen as being on the increase ‘throughout global capitalist relations’.
Space vs Earth
The discussion also brought up challenges to the ‘spatial logic’ of traditional geopolitics. One challenge was described as emerging from post-structuralist critique, but was seen as insufficient, leading to a situation of ‘critique from everywhere and nowhere’. Another was presented as a disciplinary issue: that geography should ‘forget space’ and instead focus on the problem of the ‘geo’ as both a physical and social phenomenon. This provocation arose from a dissatisfaction with the status of the earth as either ‘determining’ or ‘constructed’ – and neither position appearing convincing or useful. An additional dissatisfaction seemed to arise from the separation of the ‘geo’ into ‘above ground’ (geography) and ‘below ground’ (geology). The question summing up this discussion was phrased as follows: ‘Can one think of forms of experimental research which engage with the ‘geo’? It was argued that while there has been, for instance, artistic experimentation with the sciences, there has been little experimentation with geography/geology/earth sciences.
Experimentation represented a theme in its own right, with the need or desire to experiment being implicit or explicit in most contributions. Questions around what responsible experimentation in geopolitics might look like, whether there are alternatives to experiments, and what logics of experimentation are already followed guided this discussion. The scale of the ‘geo’ figured as a strong attribute and the effect it has on blurring boundaries between subject and object of experimentation. Examples included the naming of geological ages, geo-engineering and post-geopolitical-event ‘social engineering’, such as state strategies following the 9/11 attacks. The interplay of ‘geo’ and ‘social’ events or engineering was identified as a distinct concern (e.g. the above mentioned neo-liberal experiments following geological events). In addition, participants pointed towards a lack of experimentation with concepts such as ‘energy’ which seem to elude the concerns with materiality and discourse. The opposite of mobility, stability, was also attended to, especially the need for making the outcomes of particular experiments durable, perhaps even moving towards something like a ‘wider geo-social contract’ involving ‘gift economies’, ‘denizens’ and other new constructs. Such proposals prompted questions of how such visions relate to the abstractions of more traditional critical geopolitics – which tend to feature states, territories, citizens – and what languages and concepts the different alternatives to geopolitics might want to exchange for productive ends?
Multiplicity of visions
Finally, it was proposed that a multiplicity of perspectives might be the most helpful strategy to challenge the dominant practices and discourse of geopolitics. Multiplicity also showed up in discussions of particular alternative visions, which highlighted the issue of visibility and representation. Questions that remained in this area included:
How, why and for whom should such visions gain a bigger presence? And in what kinds of spaces and to what kinds of audiences? How do these visions address how people ‘care’ and ‘respond’ in different ways about how they are represented?
SUMMARY OF PRESENTATIONS
Session 1 – Theoretical Provocations
Nigel Clark – ‘When am I?’ Geopolitics and Stratigraphic Uncertainty’
Kathryn Yusoff – ‘Geologic Life or how to get up with dead things’
Joanne Sharp – ‘Displacing geopolitics: imagined geographies from the margins’
Session 2 – Methods & Materials
Nelly Ben Hayoun, Carina Fearnley, Austin Houldsworth – ‘The Other Volcano’
Angela Last – ‘Public visions across scales – The Mutable Matter project’
Bron Szerszynski – ‘Making Climates’
Image: Ackroyd and Harvey, Lost Souls, 2007
Another event I am very excited about: ‘New maps for an island planet’. It is a book launch and panel in relation with the ‘Interdependence Day’ project. The evening will involve ‘discussion about the creation of new maps for navigating the complex challenges presented by global economic and ecological crises’.
The book that is being launched at this event is called ‘ATLAS: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World’, edited by Renata Tyszczuk, Joe Smith, Nigel Clark and Melissa Butcher. I also have a ‘map’ in this publication and will participate, alongside other people who have contributed to the ATLAS, in the Open Book session taking place after the panel. In this session, I will run my ‘Mutation’project.
Date: Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Time: 6:30 pm
Place: London, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
Tickets: £10, £5 concessions (you can book here)
The flyer/poster can be downloaded here.
Postscript: An edited podcast from this event is now available here.