Couldn’t help but post this: the geologic gone pop! And here are some informed comments courtesy of the Scientific American blog…
Just got a CFP for an Art and Geography themed conference in Lyon, France. The conference is apparently bilingual. Here is the abstract:
‘With the latest developments in how space, place and environment are experienced in contemporary art, it is necessary to take a critical look at how relevant the various geography responses to this “spatial turn” have been. The conference “Art and geography: aesthetics and pratices of spatial knowledges” aims at exploring the contemporary contours of what is “geographical” and at questioning the boundaries between cultural activities (in this case, art and geography). It also seeks to examine the latest geographical approaches to and the hybridization of geographical knowledge in contemporary art as part of a broader discussion of their respective contributions. The conference is at the crossroads of contemporary geography and art and ambitions to unravel the implications – in factual, methodological, theoretical and epistemological terms – of the convergence between contemporary art and geography.
We welcome proposals from geographers and artists from diverse backgrounds and with varying experiences in the field. All liberal arts researchers with similar interests in the spatial or geographical dimensions of art are also welcome to contribute.’
The full CFP can be downloaded here.
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.
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.
Yesterday was the last day of events at the Cities Methodologies exhibition. I was able to go to the afternoon events, which, to me, raised interesting questions around dealing with complexity. Matthew Gandy’s talk on Gilles Clément’s ‘Derborence Island’ raised the question whether complexity has a place in public spaces, outside of the spaces where complex ideas are normally presented such as art galleries. He also drew attention to the kinds of wider debates controversial sites and interventions such as this ‘island’ or sculptures such as Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ might be giving rise to. One that I found particularly fascinating is the one he also asks on his blog: as Clément’s island, a garden raised above the surrounding land by about 6 metres, attempts to provoke thoughts about our relationship with biodiversity – what if it really, and perhaps accidentally, succeeds at becoming a habitat for endangered species? What if, as Gandy puts it, the symbolic and the scientific align? (A pdf article on Derborence Island can be found here.)
A different set of questions around complexity was asked by Andrew Harris, also from UCL’s Urban Lab. His presentation on methods of researching and relating issues around urbanisation in Mumbai touched on the current debate around visual/audio and other so-called ‘experimental methods’: what are the advantages and disadvantages of ‘newer’ methods and ‘traditional’ ethnographic methods such as interviews and field journal notes? His suggestion was to see the two types of methods as supporting one another: one, without the other, might give an incomplete or misleading account of a situation. Although, as he also put forward, there is only so much which any one can know or render about a given situation.
Harris’ presentation made me think about some recent comments I have come across on other academic blogs about many researchers’ desire to leave more room for alternative interpretations by their audiences – as well as audiences they would not normally reach with ‘traditional’ presentations of research. Often, researchers who feel that a more ‘artistic’ approach is needed to convey a particular experience have been accused of taking ‘artistic liberties’ instead of analysing and relating ‘what is there’. The counter-argument can usually be summed up as ‘there is no one story’ about any given situation (some reflections on this debate can be found in condensed version in the Using Social Theory book, which most Open University postgraduate students will have come across). Another concern, voiced by a number of researchers, has to do with competitiveness of research: it is feared that research content will suffer from external pressure to produce ‘innovative work’ with ‘innovative methods’, which frequently include art practice. This concern, in particular, has proved difficult to negotiate.
In terms of art-practice base methods, quite a few geographers at the AAG in Seattle commented that there are more and more artists crossing into geography and/or more geographers crossing into art, and that this phenomenon may be fuelling the current debate around methods. Others wondered whether this debate has more to do with reactions against more positivist inflections, which geography seem to grapple with on a permanent basis. Whichever the origin, I am intrigued about the future of this debate & what kind of effects some of the new methods – or their dialogue with ‘old’ methods – may have within and beyond the research community.
To come back to Matthew Gandy’s talk, looking at some recent projects coming out of geography, particularly out of PhD research, one could ask the question whether geographers, too, have begun to add – or to consider adding – potentially controversial complexity to public spaces. So far, projects in this vein have sought to explain the subject matter they are engaging in quite closely. However, there are an increasing amount of examples that are not – which, rather than to try to ‘describe the world’, are engaging in what Gail Davies calls ‘world-making’. It would be interesting to see what would happen if this way of doing and presenting research became more prolific… and what kinds of questions this would raise in addition to the ones that are already in circulation.
Last week I went to my first UCL lunchtime lecture, entitled ‘The Earth Bites Back’. It was given by Professor Bill McGuire from the Aon Benfield UCL Hazards Research Centre. Talking about how the solid Earth is not immune to climate change, and how climate change triggers catastrophic events such as earthquakes and tsunamis, McGuire seemed to prepare his listeners for what was going to happen a few days later off the coast of Japan.
Although presented in a bitingly humorous way, the figures McGuire offered made many people in UCL’s Darwin lecture theatre reconsider continuing with their lunch, particularly after hearing about the effects of past and predicted landslides which resulted in catastrophic mega-tsunamis. In fact, the lecture ended on McGuire’s conclusion that half the world may become uninhabitable by the end of the century. This statement underlined McGuire’s main point and motivation: to argue that the situation is far more serious than it is currently being handled in society and in politics. As he recaps, emissions are not being cut enough, and we keep on fuelling the journey towards a total collapse of the world as we know it.
A related argument has been presented by Nigel Clark in his book ‘Inhuman Nature – Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet’ (Sage). In fact, he has jokingly begun to worry that the book itself may have become the cause of some minor disasters – people who have been given or have purchased copies of the book have had strange accidents or unpleasant run-ins with natural forces. (For the record, I have not had any misadventures of this kind so far, but then I’ve got two copies lying around, which may cancel out each other’s effects…) Not that this should put you off getting hold of the book… even despite its disastrous potential, the book’s content is certainly making up for material damages. One of the reviewers on the back cover (Adrian Franklin, University of Tasmania) certainly seems to agree by boldly stating: ‘This is possibly one of the most important books you are ever likely to read… You won’t look back (the view is better)’.
In the book’s introduction, Clark, like McGuire, touches upon the irony of the situation ‘in which it is the scientific experts who are scared and who desperately wish that publics could be even more worried than they already are’ (page xix), whereas during other controversies, it is the non-experts that are accused of panicking or scaremongering. However, rather than McGuire, he zooms in on what living with such earthly reactions might entail for human action. Particularly, Clark seeks to highlight the radical asymmetry between human dependency on the earth (and extra-planetary forces) and the earth’s indifference to humanity (page 50). As Clark asks in the second chapter:
‘What does it mean to say that life, or the earth, or nature, or the universe are not just constellations of material and energy with which humans forge connections, but realities upon which we are utterly dependent – in ways that are out of all proportion to life, nature, the earth or the universe’s dependence on us?’ (page 30)
However, rather than diverting attention away from the human impact on climate change, Clark sees these foci as complementary: to be able to understand the kind of impact we may be having on the planet, we need to know what would be happening without our influence. Like Bill McGuire, who suggests that carbon dioxide levels are now the highest for 15 million years and who wonders what might we learn from that particular time in the history of our planet, Nigel Clark draws out attention to the Earth’s beginnings and early human history. Such histories, Clark proposes, have frequently been confined too readily to the realm of the sciences, and should be engaged with in the human sciences too, especially now that drastic global changes are afoot.
He further draws attention to the problems current theoretical solutions pose: while it is a valuable acknowledgement that the ‘nonhuman’ can no longer be ignored, the direction that has frequently been taken – to integrate the nonhuman via the notion of ‘co-enacting’ – may be equally dangerous (page xviii). What both Clark and McGuire emphasise is the need to acknowledge not only global change, but sudden global change, the need to move away from an image of the Earth as responding in human-friendly spatio-temporal progression. To give an example of epic time delays, McGuire discussed events such as ‘post-glacial rebound’ – the process of the earth’s crust bouncing back after the off-loading of ice from the last ice age – are still taking place today. At the same time, he emphasised how minute changes in pressure can trigger volcano outbreaks or landslides, leaving the audience to speculate whether the two phenomena might amplify each other. Such asymmetries of experience and impact highlight the problematics of notions of ‘co-enacting’.
A keyword in both McGuire’s lecture and Clark’s book is also ‘tipping point’ or ‘threshold’. As Nigel Clark writes:
‘At every spatial and temporal scale, the physical world has its own thresholds: boundaries which separate one domain of existence from another, turning points where systems transform themselves into a different state, extremes in the ordinary rhythmical expression of variability’ (page 215).
Both researchers give a strong sense that we already have gone over one of these, and that all we can aim for is damage reduction and finding ways of dealing with unfamiliar patterns and dimensions of change. What interests Clark as a human rather than physical geographer is how people respond to and are shaped by such catastrophic transitions, or, as he puts it, he is ‘hitching the issue of earthly volatility to that of bodily vulnerability’ (page xx). Here, he addresses questions that are being asked ever more frequently in relation to recent catastrophes. An example is Christina Patterson’s outcry in Wednesday’s (16 March 2011) Independent ‘Viewspaper’ that journalists cannot ‘write about how terrible it [is] that the universe [does not] seem to care about these people’.
Rather than ending in a fatalistic statement about the impossibility of being able to make sense of, or intervene in colossal changes, Clark explores a more life-affirming dimension. The theme which he develops is that of generosity. By this he not only means the outpour of money and support from large numbers of strangers at times where disaster strikes, but also a long-term offering of knowledge and practices that have been passed to us across generations – from those who had to face such extreme events and (sometimes) found ways of dealing with them. An example he names is the history of fire management in Australia – humans experimenting with controlling regularly occurring extremes, but also exceptional events they are surprised by. Clark suggests that we ‘bear witness to this indebtedness’ and use it as a starting point for our current negotiations around climate change. As Bill McGuire might add, before we ‘end up getting the worst of both worlds’: large populations panicking in the face of world-altering catastrophes and governments resorting to draconian measures.
If you would like to read more about this, Nigel Clark’s, ‘Inhuman Nature – Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet’ (Sage) is out now.
Bill McGuire’s book, ‘Waking the Giant’ will be out in February 2012 (Open University Press). Until it’s out, you will be able to see the lecture on youtube via UCL’s lunchtime lecture channel.
The Open University Geography Department is advertising a three year PhD studentship on geological hazards and community participation in the Solomon Islands. The studentship, which is a collaboration with the British Geological Survey and Leicester University, will be based in Geography (supervised by Nigel Clark and David Humphreys). The student will be registered for a PhD at the Geography Department at The Open University, Milton Keynes. Applicants should have a social science background and an interest in geoscience.
The candidate will undertake field research working with geologists and local people in the Solomon Islands to assess the risk of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis and to help facilitate public participation process in policy and planning.
Closing date: Friday, 29 October 2010
Interview date: Thursday, 11 November 2010
Starting Date: January 2011
For more information, please download the advert.