Two of my articles have just come out. A commissioned piece on ‘experimental geographies’ and a theoretical article, which also talks about experimentation – with the inhuman.
Angela Last, ‘Negotiating the Inhuman: Bakhtin, Materiality and the Instrumentalization of Climate Change’, Theory, Culture & Society.
The article argues that the work of literary theorist Mikhail M. Bakhtin presents a starting point for thinking about the instrumentalization of climate change. Bakhtin’s conceptualization of human–world relationships, encapsulated in the concept of ‘cosmic terror’, places a strong focus on our perception of the ‘inhuman’. Suggesting a link between the perceived alienness and instability of the world and in the exploitation of the resulting fear of change by political and religious forces, Bakhtin asserts that the latter can only be resisted if our desire for a false stability in the world is overcome. The key to this overcoming of fear, for him, lies in recognizing and confronting the worldly relations of the human body. This consciousness represents the beginning of one’s ‘deautomatization’ from following established patterns of reactions to predicted or real changes. In the vein of several theorists and artists of his time who explored similar ‘deautomatization’ strategies – examples include Shklovsky’s ‘ostranenie’, Brecht’s ‘Verfremdung’, Artaud’s emotional ‘cruelty’ and Bataille’s ‘base materialism’ – Bakhtin proposes a more playful and widely accessible experimentation to deconstruct our ‘habitual picture of the world’. Experimentation is envisioned to take place across the material and the textual to increase possibilities for action. Through engaging with Bakhtin’s ideas, this article seeks to draw attention to relations between the imagination of the world and political agency, and the need to include these relations in our own experiments with creating climate change awareness.
Angela Last, ‘Experimental Geographies’, Geography Compass.
The proliferation of the term ‘experimental’ in human geography has given rise to the question of how geographers experiment. Given the range of different examples – from explorations of sensory methods to attempts at transforming the role of publics in decision-making – it becomes clear that one cannot talk about a unified experimental geographical approach. While projects share common themes such as challenging methodological limitations or wishing to play a more active part in the ‘production of space’, they also show fundamental differences in their attitude towards knowledge-making and intervention in the world. A starting point for further research and debate, rather than a comprehensive survey, this article outlines themes, differences and productive tensions within the discourse, and highlights the need to examine the wider politics that experimental approaches are embedded in.
Image Source: Probe.
I haven’t attended to the ‘Mutable Matter of the Week’ section of the blog for a while, so I thought I’d post another example today: Man-made clouds. While man-made clouds have entered the mass-media through stories about geo-engineering plans, they have also entered the art world. They appear to come in two varieties: figurative and literal. The figurative clouds range from the more humble painterly renditions and snow globes to giant mushroom clouds and entire cloud cities.The literal clouds are constructed from similar materials to their natural counterparts and are therefore also characterised by their limited duration. Berndnaut Smilde, architect of the above image, comments in the Washington Post: ‘It’s there for a brief moment and then the cloud falls apart. It’s about the potential of the idea, but in the end it will never function.’ Whether or not this statement also applies to geo-engineering, we shall see. For the moment, it seems valuable to follow the question posed by the snow globe producers of ‘Weather Permitting’: ‘if your environment is an experiment, what kind of experiment do you want it to be?’
PS: Just got reminded to include the man-made clouds of architecture projects such as Diller & Scofidio’s Blur Building and Transsolar and Tetsuo Kondo’s Cloudscape. And, there is, of course, the previously mentioned Nanotechnology Ice Cream Cloud project. Feel free to post more examples in the comments!
Image source: Soundfjord
Am currently working on some radio programmes and sound workshops for my new project. Here is a workshop at the SoundFjord Gallery that sounds rather exciting. Would definitely attend it if I wasn’t making sounds somewhere else at that time. In case you are able to go, here are the details from their website:
Material Studies is a monthly improvisation workshop lead by Matthisa Kispert, Blanca Regina and Andrew Riley, and on occasion a special guest – past guests have included Ryan Jordan, Iris Garrelfs – first initiated at SOUND//SPACE held at V22 Summer Club from May to July 2012.
Philosophy: “Material Studies is an open-to-all, playful collective exploration of the sounds within matter.
Avant-garde art, be it musically, visually or performance based often appears as somewhat elitist, with a defined hierarchy between those who create the work (the artists) and those experience it (the audience). To people who have not had the fortune of being taught all the codes of the artform, the pieces and the settings in which these are shown can be uncomfortable and alienating.” – The Material Studies Group
The Material Studies project seeks to open these experimental artforms to anyone who wishes to participate in the collective, improvised sonic exploration of various materials and objects, whether by actively working with the objects, passively absorbing the interactions of others or by expressing a response to the sonic exploration through visual or written acts.
The use of traditional instruments, terminology and tools of manipulation will be avoided. Participants will together develop an improvisational language based solely on the sounds that can be teased out of various everyday objects, with each session being themed around a particular material or object.
No expertise or previous experience is required, instead the sessions focus on the communicative potential of collective improvisation, where every participant needs to listen and react to everything that is happening around, where every gesture has an influence on everything else.
The underlying principle of the project is to promote a corrosion of the space between the artist-performer and the contemplator-audience and to promote the idea that we are all valuable as artists regardless of education or class.
Next workshops: SATURDAY 13 October 2012 | SATURDAY 03 November 2012 | 2.30 – 6 pm
£5/£4 concs per workshop
It is essential to RSVP [helen_at_soundfjord.org.uk] | Pay on the door
An example from Material Studies:
‘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!)
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: the author in her natural environment
A few weeks ago, I went to the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Londoners are likely to remember her polka-dotted tree coverings along the Southbank, part of the artist’s contribution to the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Walking In My Mind’ exhibition. The Paris retrospective had a very different feel to the Southbank exhibits, even though the infamous ‘dots’ featured in both. I think I agree with the Laura Cumming’s review in the Guardian that the Hayward’s focus was more on ‘immersion’ in wacky metaphorical environments, whereas the Pompidou curators seemed interested in political significance. After all, as the Pompidou exhibition catalogue points out, Kusama and her dots regularly ended up attracting police attention (which was effectively diverted through the use of bribes).
Image source: Yayoi Kusama
I have to explain that I saw the Kusama retrospective in the middle of finishing an article on Bakhtin’s ‘cosmic terror’, preparing a lecture on materiality and space, and reading Simone Weil’s ‘Gravity and Grace’ alongside Žižek’s ‘Welcome to the desert of the real’, so, to me, the exhibition arrived as an amazing sensual illustration of this slightly peculiar mix of theorists. On the other hand, the mix is perhaps not so peculiar, when one considers the central question that is addressed by Bakhtin, Weil, Žižek and ‘theorists of matter’: how do or should you see yourself in relation to everything else – and why does it matter?
Image source: Yayoi Kusama
A starting point for Kusama, Bakhtin, Weil and ‘matter theorist’ Karen Barad is to think about the limits of bodily boundaries. Interestingly, all of them end up making a connection to the cosmic. Karen Barad, for instance, talks about ‘meeting the universe half-way’: ‘We are of the universe – there is no inside, no outside. There is only intra-acting from within and as part of the world in its becoming.’ Basically, Karen Barad does not see bodies as defined or contained against an equally defined environment, but as intra-related with everything else (emphasis on everything). The boundaries, that seem so clearly to exist, are produced – not merely by the limited human sensory apparatus or understanding, but by matter itself. For her, this process, this generativity of matter which we are implicated in, is literally universal. To realise this intra-connectivity entails responsibility – and choices about what we do with it. As she writes:
‘Meeting each moment, being alive to the possibilities of becoming, is an ethical call, an invitation that is written into the very matter of all being and becoming.’
So, accepting oneself as part of the universe means rising to meet this ethical responsibility.
The artist in her studio (image: Shawn Mortensen)
For Bakhtin, it matters, too, how we see ourselves in relation to the universe and everything that it stands for. Most people, he suggests, are fearful of thinking of themselves as part of the universe, or even of their wider immediate environments. Rather, they choose to cling to what he terms ‘small reality’ – a false idyllic space where they are protected from the inhumanity of ‘great reality’: potential meaninglessness, sudden changes, terror, violence. In order to maintain this ‘small reality’, these people choose to cling to false promises – be they of a religious or political nature – which, in turn, empower the wrong kind of people. (Régis Debray wrote a cheeky book on this subject, whose title translates as ‘On the good use of catastrophes’.) Bakhtin suggests that, if people aim to ward themselves against the instrumentalisation of the terror of ‘great reality’, they need to find a way of coming to terms with it and to ‘humanise’ the potentially scary relations. For Bakhtin, the best way of negotiating ‘great reality’ is through our body: to realise its open-ness to the world. This strategy, however, is not only about the self, about one’s own protection: it is about being a part of humanity as a whole, about being willing to see the bigger picture against ‘small’ interests, and about being willing to sacrifice one’s stability and (physical) integrity for the greater humanity.
Image source: Yayoi Kusama
Simone Weil follows a very similar goal. She, too, tries to persuade us to ‘identify ourselves with the universe itself’. And, like Bakthin, she argues against the pursuit of a ‘small reality’ where we try to protect ourselves against arbitrary events. As she writes: ‘we must prefer hell to an imaginary paradise’ (returning to the ‘Matrix’ theme of the red and blue pill from the previous post…). For Weil, to feel the universe, the world, is important in at least two ways. The first resembles Bakhtin’s focus on protection: identifying with the universe has nothing to do with turning people into passive matter, but, on the contrary, with warding ourselves against being ‘reduced to matter’. The one thing we do not wish to become by what happens to us, according to Weil, is ‘mere matter’ – to not be interested in actively shaping one’s life, to be interested only in ‘means’ such as money or power. Weil thinks a lot in terms of good and evil, and, to identify with the universe is a form of protection from evil. Evil, in her view, can destroy only ‘tangible’ things. In order to maintain the ‘good’, she proposes to focus on intangible things, and to tie the ones we want to protect, such as our most precious thoughts, to the ‘perpetual exchange of matter’, and particularly to two things, which she believes cannot be taken away from any living human being: respiration and the perception of space. The second way, in which an identification with the universe is important, has to do with others: to understand others not as parts of the same universe but as another conception of the universe (or prisons surrounded by universes, but that’s another story), be they other people or nation states. If we see others as such, it makes it difficult to wish to become the ‘master’ of the one universe, to become involved in power struggles. But this vision is also about ethical relating: how do we interact with another conception of the universe? Could it be understood as the same, but different world? Would we take responsibility for destroying such a world? Wouldn’t we destroy ourselves – wholly?
Kusama’s dotted room under UV light
All of these positions were with me when I entered Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective. The exhibition started with a room of her early paintings, which already seemed to address ‘the dissolution of her own image and individuality in the infinity of a cosmic landscape’. We learn that Kusama’s work emanates from a child hood experience of ‘losing’ her body at the family’s kitchen table, when she felt her body and the whole room being invaded and ‘obliterated’ by the red flower pattern of the dinner table cloth. Having lost the boundaries with her environment in this way, Kusama proceeds to experiment with the limits of bodily boundaries. Her ‘Infinity Nets’, for instance, a series of paintings showing a seemingly infinite number or small loops, could be seen as a means to explore the human/machine boundary. Kusama herself describes these paintings as being ‘without beginning, end, or centre’. Sometimes stretching over several walls, these paintings have often been described as ‘inhuman’, in the sense that no one human could have produced them. Apparently, Kusama sometimes painted several days on end, at least once ending up in hospital from the consequences of her caffeine-fuelled sleeplessness (or paint-smell overdose?). At the same time, these paintings, this overabundance of loops or dots, can be experienced as very child-like. Yet child-like does not necessarily entail a ‘humanising’ of experience, at least not for adults. As Lynn Zelevansky points out, comparing Kusama’s work to that of Yoshitomo Nara, children can be perceived as living partly in another world, too. Like the Kusama-as-machine, they are ‘boundary creatures’. On the other hand, through combining the playful shapes with machine-like repetition, Kusama also seems to ask how we should envision infinity: as a pleasant ‘surpassing’ of time (to use Weil’s words) or as endless sterility?
Kusama and her penis-covered furniture
Either way, the subject of infinity addresses the limits of human experience. In his essay ‘dot, dot, dot.’, psychoanalyst Gérard Wajcman draws attention to two further boundaries in the work of Kusama: those of gender and the organic/inorganic. Pointing to the artist’s placement of dots, he proposes that not only do they cover men, women and objects equally, but also appear to multiply without touching. As he phrases it: ‘the dots don’t fuck’ – or don’t need to. Similarly, Kusama appears to contest the distinction between living and non-living by making inanimate objects sprout a ‘forest of penises’. Comparing her tactic with the case of Freud’s ‘little Hans’, who distinguishes between the living and non-living by means of their capacity for ‘making wee-wee’, Wajcman half-jokingly concludes that Kusama truly fails to make that cut. For him, she also addresses this particular cut when she ‘vaporises’ the body in works such as ‘Narcissus Garden’, a field of 1500 chromed plastic orbs, each reflecting the body of the person standing amongst them. More so, Kusama’s artworks seem to ask how the spectators view themselves not only within the artwork, but in relation to their environment: do they feel what it is like to be ‘a dot in the universe’ – vaporised into a infinite number of (meaningless?) particles or isolated planets, do they feel paranoid about being looked at from hundreds of mirrors – or do they bask in the feeling of being infinitely reflected and looked at? Here, Hegel’s term ‘bad infinity’ (used by Žižek) comes to mind as a perfect description, though not in the original meaning.
Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden
Different responses to infinity seem increasingly enabled in Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water Infinity Room. When stepping into this installation – comprised of a dark mirrored room, black floor covered in water, with a passageway in between, and a seemingly infinite number of little coloured lightbulbs – one really gets a sense of what it means to be a ‘dot in the universe’. I experienced a loss of gravity, as if I was hovering in and staring straight into the universe, like a suitless (boundary-less?) astronaut dumped out of a space vessel. How to make sense of such a human/universe encounter? And why might Kusama think it is important to have such experiences? Wajcman proposes that Kusama’s work is as much about others as it is about herself: that her works seek to create spaces where all of humanity could (or should?) live, to create spaces where, according to the artist herself, she is able to save people from their ‘sad, outcast’ existences. Wajcman suggests that by outcasts, Kusama thinks less of the mentally ill, homosexuals or other ‘social outcasts’ who are explicitly addressed or participate in her works, but a ‘humanity reduced to dots, to counters, to non-being’. As he concludes, for him, Kusama invents the world we are missing/the world we need.
Yayoi Kusama ‘Fireflies on the Water’ Infinity Room
Here, an interesting link ties ‘saving oneself’ with ‘saving humanity’ (self/other boundary): how does my view of myself in relation to my environment impact on greater society? This is the place, where, for me, Žižek comes in and his critique of mass individualism, particularly the individual’s excessive focus on the body. It relates to the tension between two opposite poles that, for me, is expressed in Kusama’s work. As Wajcman put it: is Kusama’s work the ultimate self-obsession – to see oneself at the centre of, and infinitely reflected in, the universe – or is it the ultimate selflessness – about becoming (part of) the universe by recognising the ‘pointlessness’ of a focus only on oneself? This opposition is also expressed by Simone Weil and Slavoj Zizek. To use Weil’s words:
‘Two tendencies with opposite extremes: to destroy the self for the sake of the universe, or to destroy the universe for the sake of the self. He who has not been able to become nothing runs the risk of reaching a moment when everything other than himself ceases to exist.’
What if, as Zizek asks, being ‘really alive’ entails addressing something bigger than our own ‘good time’? What if it means addressing the wider dimensions of life and of the world, and both being humbled by it and wishing to take up a greater cause?
Image source: Yayoi Kusama
Kusama’s work has been accused of being narcissistic rather than being about teaching others how to be a mere dot amongst others, particularly, because of its spectacular and at times pornographic nature. Not only do critics take into account the appearance of her work, but also Kusama’s knack for drawing media attention. Having been exposed to all the different aspects of her work (apart from her writing, which I have just started to delve into), I cannot but view it as an offer of choice – it is up to you how you want to take on her work. You can contemplate the universe or your own reflection in her work – or do both at the same time: to become lost in the dots while filming yourself in the process of it. Like most people, I left the exhibition in a state of extreme happiness. Unlike to be expected from photos of Kusama’s work, I did not feel that this was because of ‘intoxication’ from the bright colours and wacky shapes, but from having had the chance to experiment with being a dot in the universe.
Image: ‘Land Marks’ by Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla
Terra Infirma – Experimenting with geo-political practices
Friday, 27 January 2012, The Arts Catalyst, 50-54 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1M 5PS
What does the ‘geo’ in ‘geo-politics’ actually do?
In this workshop we would like participants to imagine how geo-politics could be thought differently. As a starting point, we have taken the contrast between the ‘biopolitical’ and the ‘geopolitical’. Whereas the ‘bio(s)’ in biopolitics does a lot of conceptual and ‘practical’ work against a rising importance of biological life for politics, by comparison, the ‘ge(o)’ in geopolitics seems to form a mere stage set for human politics. Could the ‘geo’ potentially play another role in relation to political practices?
Particularly with the arrival of ‘planetary issues’ connected to climate change and resource shortages, topics such as natural disasters, ‘land grabbing’, atmospheric data and geo-engineering are showing a growing presence in the political arena. Not only do these issues highlight the dependence of humans on a certain physical stability of our planet, but also the limits of dealing with this interdependence, whether it is in terms of political practices (e.g. how to deal with ‘naturally transforming territories’) or theoretical applications. These limitations have prompted experiments around how we could re-think the geo-political. The philosopher Michel Serres, for instance, has proposed to rethink geo-political relations through the term ‘Biogée’ (from Greek ‘bios’ – life; ‘gē’ – earth), through which he attempts to re-connect the separated spheres of ‘life’ and ‘earth’ to form a ‘contemporary global state’ (in both senses of the word). Similarly, geographers have started to experiment with the geo-political, from drawing on ‘geophilosophies’ and artistic engagements to establishing a dialogue between human and physical geography.
So far, most of the experimentation seems to have taken place in the context of climate change, however, the examples-so-far suggest that other areas of geo-politics could likewise benefit from creative attention to the ‘geo’.
We seek to discuss points and questions emerging from preliminary experimentation with the ‘geopolitical’, including but not limited to the following:
- What (else) could the ‘geo’ in geopolitics do?
- In what ways does the ‘geo’ already surface in ‘geo-politics’?
- What could theories of materiality contribute?
- What kind(s) of dialogue could exist between the bio- and geo-political?
- Dangers of simplistic links between the ‘biopolitical’ and ‘geopolitical’ (e.g. the potential return of social Darwinist interpretations)
- The role of technologies in shaping notions of the ‘geo-political’
- ‘Material interventions’ into geo-politics, e.g. artistic provocations
- What kind of work could the ‘geo’ do, for instance, in policies around climate change/geo-engineering?
- How could the ‘geo’ be embedded in public engagement?
In each session, speakers give a short paper or commentary, which will then be discussed with the workshop participants.
10:00 Registration & Tea/Coffee
10:15 Welcome and introductions
10: 30 Session 1 – Theoretical Provocations
Chair: Angela Last
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’
13:30 Session 2 – Methods & Materials
Chair: Alan Ingram
Nelly Ben Hayoun & Carina Fernley – ‘The Other Volcano’
Angela Last – ‘Public visions across scales – The Mutable Matter project’
Bron Szerszynski – ‘Making Climates’
15:00 Tea Break
15:30 Session 3 – Embedding Experimental Geopolitics
Chair: Gail Davies
Andrew Barry - ’Geopolitical fieldwork’
Alan Ingram – ‘Contested visibilities: geopolitics and contemporary art’
Gail Davies (discussant)
The workshop is supported by the UCL Department of Geography and an ESRC Fellowship (Grant No. PTA-026-27-2869). We are able to refund reasonable travel costs for attendance at the workshop. Please contact Angela Last email@example.com for more information or to reserve a place.
A poster for the workshop can be downloaded here.
Image source: CERN
Just got an interesting events notice via the CERN newsletter. The good news: the event will be podcast. The bad news is: it’s in French. But: you have till 16 September to grab yourself a French speaker or, like me, brush up your vocabulary!
Anyway, here is the announcement:
Lecture in French
Date : Thursday, 16 September, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.
Hubert Reeves & François Bon
The astrophysicist delivers a lecture and holds a conversation with the writer on the subjects of
Astronomy, Ecology and Poetry
“Human presence is conditional on a range of phenomena that involve the entire cosmos. Humans are not a foreign body in the universe: recent discoveries in contemporary astronomy provide indications of how we are interrelated with the objects that shine in the sky. When we observe the stars, we do so with eyes which are made of atoms that were forged inside the stars. However, we are also conducting an enormous, planet-wide experiment in two spheres: climate change and the erosion of biodiversity. Our observations are already revealing the first effects of that experiment, and the forecast for more long-term effects should be a source of anxiety and even trepidation. Unlike a scientist working in a laboratory, if we find that our experiment has gone wrong, we can’t simply stop it. For that matter, we don’t even have the option of leaving the laboratory and going home. We live in our own test tube. The stakes are high. We are talking about nothing less than the future of the Earth’s biosphere. What we know is that life is extraordinarily robust, and it is not in our power to obliterate it. Life will continue to adapt and proliferate as it has been doing for the past four billion years, taking on a bewildering variety of forms. What we don’t know is whether we humans will continue to have a place in this world. In the words of the French poet Saint John Perse: “As far as the frontiers of science are pushed back, over the extended arc of these frontiers one will hear the poet’s hounds on the chase.”
Here is a link to the official website.
A few days ago, I got drawn towards a shop or gallery (in some parts of London, you cannot always tell between the two) which had images of fantastically enlarged seeds and pollen displayed in its window. The images were taken from two books, ‘Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers’ and ‘Seeds: Time Capsules of Life’. Unfortunately, the place was shut, so to this date I have not been able to get a glimpse at their insides. However, I did look some reviews up on the internet and came across an article in the Guardian about the ‘third-party sex life’ of plants featuring similar images of pollens and seeds. The Guardian story (called ‘Love is in the air’) is anthropomorphic to say the least and gives the expression ‘eco porn’ a whole new meaning. Somewhat unexpectedly, we are faced with a rather anti‑climatic ending about the ‘hardy seeds’ being witnesses of times gone by and a metaphor about murder scenes to illustrate that ‘pollen is not just beautiful, it matters’… I wonder how the actual books compare to these reviews & whether they dwell on the matter aspect a bit more…
Coinciding with the pollen/seeds encounter was a phone call from my mum telling me about an interview with a German Nobel laureate (Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard) she had watched on TV. According to my mum, there were two reasons for mentioning this to me: one was that she thought that she was an interesting lady who could talk about her subject without making her listeners feel dumb, and she also liked the fact that the lady did not just answer questions, but also asked the interviewer and the audience some questions in return. Finally, she very excitedly got to the ‘main reason’: ‘She is a biochemist, but she published a cookery book!’ Of course, I had to look this book up, not because I do not believe that scientist can’t normally cook or because they produce really weird cookery books (although they may do) e.g. around ‘mutable noodles’, but because I have been practically working on my own cookery book since I could hold a wooden spoon, and I am always interested in other peoples ‘cooking paths’. I wondered if this woman had also stood in the family’s kitchen as a child, hands on hips, determinately stating that she did not want to follow any recipes but wanted to ‘experiment’ and invent her own (strangely I did the same thing with music, which led me to making my own ‘music’, too… and my own haircuts for me and our family dog…). However, I found out, that she did not start cooking until she was a student. Never mind. For a laugh, I googled whether other Nobel Laureates had published cookery books, and found out in another Guardian article that apparently George Bernard Shaw once authored a vegetarian cookbook. While, after some ‘research’, I think it is fairer to say that somebody compiled the cookery book on the basis of what he liked to eat, rather than the literary genius himself, it is true, that he did write down some interesting things about vegetarianism. Amongst those I noticed the quote: ‘Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground and it explodes into a giant oak! Bury a sheep and nothing happens but decay.’ Here we go – back to sexually charged plant matter again…
The project is inspired by the many different connections
through which people link to their environment.
Mutable Matter is a process of mutual learning and discovery
where ideas are exchanged through symbolic experimentation.
The focus of the activities is matter.
How do we imagine matter?