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: Michael C.C. Lin from the forthcoming book Architecture in the Anthropocene: Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, edited by Etienne Turpin (Hong Kong: MAP Office/MAP Books Publishers, 2013)
Next year, I will be participating in an AAG session entitled ‘Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos” (session abstract posted below). The session is organised by Harlan Morehouse (University of Minnesota) and Elizabeth Johnson (University of Wisconsin). Am very much looking forward to the discussions! Here is my presentation abstract:
We are the World: Ideologies and material representations
For the majority of social theorists, human relations with materiality, the world and the cosmos have been connected to fear and alienation, and to the instrumentalisation of these sentiments to gain political influence. At any moment in history, representations of materiality have been used politically to deny aspects of human/world relations and to undermine productive responses. Current examples include the denial of anthropogenic climate change and, conversely, calls for the abolition of democracy, deemed ‘unable to deal’ with the consequences of future planetary transformations, in favour of more authoritarian structures.
The work of authors such as Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Simone Weil acknowledges the importance of thinking at and beyond the planetary scale to counter the instrumentalisation of alienation and the construction of ‘preferred realities’. For these authors, identification with the world and the cosmos has nothing to do with escapism or ‘materialising’ humans, but with warding oneself against being reduced to passive matter by ideologies that deny certain material relations through idealised constructions. For Weil, for instance, to identify with the universe means to cultivate a preoccupation not with tangible materialism, but with an intangible one, focused on thoughts and ‘the perpetual exchange of matter’, in which humans take part.
Bringing together past and present writing on materiality, this paper seeks to highlight the significance of representing human-world relations for constructions of political agency and to propose early and mid-twentieth century conceptualisations of ‘great reality’ as one potential pathway for thinking the human as a geological political agent.
Call for Papers: Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013)
Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos’
In 2000, Crutzen and Stoermer gave name to a new geological epoch. The “Anthropocene” demarked a post-Holocene present and future in which human activity was understood to be the dominant agent of change in the global environment (2000). Understandably, such a sweeping claim has been viewed unfavorably within critical geographical and environmental scholarship, generating arguments that Crutzen and Stoermer’s concept only offers a new, albeit negative, story of human’s mastery of the earth’s processes. Nigel Clark (2011), for example, has suggested that the term neglects the presence – and force – of terrestrial processes that exist independently from human relationships. Similar criticisms have emerged from the substantial and diverse literature on more-than-human geographies, which aim to dislodge anthropocentrism by granting nonhuman actors and processes more prominent positions in everyday events as well as the meaning and experience of social, political, and historical change (cf. Latour 2004, Serres 2010, Bennett 2011, Badmington 2000, Braun and Whatmore 2010, Castree et al. 2004).
These perspectives have been instrumental in shaping critical responses to Crutzen and Stoermer’s hyperbolic claims. However, recent work in philosophy and the humanities invites an alternative reading of the “Anthropocene,” one that that is more sympathetic to these critiques and that does not elevate or reinscribe humanity as the principal agent of global environmental change, but rather situates it as one force in a field of material processes (Morton 2012). Further, such a reading would recognize unique states of affairs that signal the “collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” (Chakrabarty 2009) – a sentiment paralleling the suggestion that the Anthropocene announces a shift from the human as biological entity to that of humanity as a geological agent. In these sessions we wish to revisit the idea of the Anthropocene in order to work towards a politics capable of responding to the epistemological and ontological challenges posed by 21st century environmental uncertainty. In spite of its originary hyperbole, the idea of the Anthropocene nevertheless compels us to rethink life amongst the myriad and strange mixtures of social, natural, and socio-natural processes, and in doing so come to terms with materialities that far outstrip the relative inconsequentiality of a human experience of space and time. Or, to echo Morton, it inspires us to ‘think big, and maybe even bigger than that’ (2010). Framing questions include, but are not limited to:
• How does the introduction of global, geological humanity as a singular subject challenge, complement, and/or modify discourses of critical environmental thought?
• If we identify the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene with something as ‘massively distributed in space and time’ (Morton 2010), what limitations do we (as individuals) experience? And what are the implications for considering issues of environmental ethics, responsibility, and politics?
• In what ways does the meaning of “human” change in the movement between biological and geological agency?
• How might critical environmental thought acknowledge the crucial role independent terrestrial processes play in the constitution and experience of material realities while acknowledging humanity’s capacity to shape the earth at multiple scales and in numerous ways?
In light of the above, the organizers of this session welcome novel socio-ecological perspectives that critically reflect on the idea of the Anthropocene, examining its impacts on 21st century environmental thought and politics. Please send inquiries / abstracts of no more than 250 words to Harlan Morehouse (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Elizabeth Johnson (email@example.com) by October 5th 2012.
Badmington, N. (2000). Posthumanism. New York, Palgrave.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Braun, B. and S. Whatmore (2010). “The Stuff of Politics: An Introduction.” Political Matter. Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press.
Castree, N., C. Nash, et al. (2004). “Mapping posthumanism: an exchange.” Environment and Planning A 36: 1341-1363.
Chakrabarty, D. (2009). “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35(Winter): 197-222.
Clark, N. (2011). Inhuman nature : sociable life on a dynamic planet. Los Angeles ; London, SAGE.
Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F. (2000). “The Anthropocene.” IGBP Newsletter 41(17): 17- 18.
Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morton, T. (2012). “On Entering the Anthropocene.” A lecture at the Environmental Humanities Symposium, University of New South Wales, August 23, 2012. Available at http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2012/08/on-entering-anthropocene-mp3.html
Morton, T. (2010). The ecological thought. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Serres, M. (2010). Biogea. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Press.
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:
Since Mutable Matter started off as a blog about invisible risk, here is an entertaining piece of animation by John Lloyd on all the things we can’t see. Especially love the philosophical ending…
The end of the world has never looked so good – at least that’s how you might feel if you’ve watched the recent string of apocalyptic movies. These films include something for everyone, from the highly stylised (Melancholia) to the ‘realist’ (The Turin Horse), although these distinctions cannot always be clearly made, and there is also the inevitable rom-com option. Exiting the cinema after watching ‘The Turin Horse’, having gone through the ‘Melancholia’ experience just a few days before, my companion joked that Béla Tarr’s film could be described as ‘Melancholia for the 99%’.
What I find interesting about many of these films, which include Another Earth and Seeking a friend for the end of the world, is that they seem to be more about the inner world (collapse of the human psyche) than the ‘outer world’ (collapse of the physical environment). The guiding question for Mike Cahill, the director/co-writer (with Brit Marling) of Another Earth, for instance, is about forgiveness: ‘Who needs to meet themselves the most?’ And how would they react? The only material destruction in the film appears to be that of one character’s body – whose reaction to a possible meeting with himself ends in self-mutilation to rob himself of his sensory perception. In Lars von Trier’s film, the ostensibly most stable, rational character turns out to be the most fragile, and the most fragile, irrational character’s state is revealed to bear the greatest strength.
Amongst all the celebratory and condemning reviews (there does not seem to be anywhere in between) only one article (in the New York Times) seems to touch on this theme. The quote, to me, could have been taken straight from Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on ‘cosmic terror’:
‘There is a grim vindication — and also an obvious, effective existential joke — in Justine’s discovery that her hyperbolic despair may turn out to be rooted in an accurate and objective assessment of the state of the universe’.
One could argue about the differences between the ends for Bakhtin – to embrace chance, death and other disturbing features of the universe as a means of counteracting fear of earthly (political) power – and the ends for von Trier. According to A O Scott’s New York Times review, von Trier’s aim may be to show how the world ‘deserves its awful fate’. Indeed, the director himself comments that he intended to make a very pessimistic film. In an interview he mentions how he watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in preparation:
‘Tarkovsky constructs all of his films as worlds. And each time, he gives the impression that this world explodes. It’s because of him that I believe in spirits, in phantoms. Do you remember the last plan of Solaris, which included this hallucinatory camera movement? This was really my source of inspiration for the end of Melancholia. I wanted the concluding moment of the film to be the most pessimistic that I’ve ever done, as, as far as I am aware, my films all end too nicely.’
In Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, the human-cosmic relations seem equally present, but they take a much more material dimension. In his book Béla Tarr, Le Temps D’Après, Jacques Rancière notes how The Turin Horse sees ‘cosmic relations’ taking the place of social relations. Instead of human characters putting obstacles in the protagonists’ way, the latter are pushed back to the house by extreme winds or become increasingly paralysed by dwindling resources. The story is centred around the very basics of life: matter and energy. This is not a film about individuals, but about infrastructure and about humans-as-infrastructure, supporting and perpetuating patterns. Béla Tarr sums it up as follows:
‘We are doing very little things, but every day we are doing the same things – you are getting weaker and weaker, you have less and less energy and you are getting older. You cannot live with anything in your life, you can do the same thing but in a different way and unfortunately, you are going down, and I am going down, and everything is going down.’
According to Tarr, this material commonality is also reflected in the casting process, in which the same characteristics are sought for in human, animals and the landscape equally. In fact, Tarr notes how the horse is more important than the human characters.
In terms of their sensory approaches, Tarr’s and von Trier’s films also move in opposite directions. Although they can both be described as beautiful, hypnotic and interested in transmitting the reality in which the characters live, there is a marked difference, which already begins with the different speeds at the films are shot. Tarr uses 30 cuts for 147 minutes to show the slow disintegration of his characters. Von Trier also messes with time, however his inspiration is less realism than surrealism, notably Dali’s soft clocks. In Melancholia, the apocalypse takes place in a spatially and temporally distorted, dream-like state, although this, for him, has not always worked to his aesthetic satisfaction. After previewing the first scenes of the film, von Trier found them too stylised: they looked too much like a perfume advert– ‘but I wanted apocalypse!’ Another inspiration seems to have been opera and its dramatic expressiveness, which, for von Trier consists of the condensation of strong emotion into short intervals of time. Every image was supposed to announce the end of the world.
By contrast, Tarr’s imagery, while also intensely sensually engaging, seeks to underline materiality and the absence of emotion – including the absence of the spiritual. Prompted about this fact, Tarr comments:
‘The god created this fucking shit, what we have. We just wanted to show you how we disappear, and I don’t know who is the god. But if you remember, Nietzsche stated, God is dead.’
Yet this focus on representing materiality does not only seem to be about the non-existence of God, but also about the non-existence of (productive) thinking and doing. The sudden monologue in the middle of the film appears to mark this lack, the impossibility of change. Not only, according to the deliverer of this speech, has there ‘never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth’, but ‘change has indeed taken place’. This change is being described as the dissolution of potentially resistant forces through their self-destruction after the realisation that neither god(s), nor good and bad exist. In Melancholia, the world, too, appears to have been lost already, as embodied in the character of Justine. Even before the planet is destroyed, she ceases to connect to it: food tastes ‘like ash’ and the earth ‘is evil’. The apocalypse comes as a much needed release.
Does this leave us with two unrepentantly hopeless films? Here, Rancière offers some rare optimism: while, in all of Tarr’s films, the characters never manage to break out of established patterns and always end back where they started off, the closure this implies also suggests openness. Not only is there an infinite variety of patterns and ways to explore these patterns, but with every repetition there seems to be room for something more, something that suggests that the ‘closed circle is always open’. As he aptly puts is: even ‘the last morning is still a morning before’.
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.
Before I get to wrap up the last few events, here is another notice (thanks, Chris from super/collider!) for a public forum entitled ‘Unknown Fields – From the Atomic to the Cosmic’.
The second subtitle appears to be ‘Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to Baikonur Cosmodrome’.
I will definitely be going as I just cannot miss out on the line-up, which you can check out in the programme. Some of the presenters/discussants have been featured on this blog, such as Michael Madsen, director of ‘Into Eternity’ or Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, the artist who caused uproar in the scientific community after illustrating mutant insects from so-called ‘low level radiation zones’.
The event will take place at the Architectural Association Gallery
11am – 4pm
36 Bedford Square, London
Free for all!
Another interesting public lecture (in French) coming up at CERN on the 9th of June 2011. Usually, these are recorded and later posted on their website. Will post an update as soon as I know more. Anyway, the lecture addresses the question what was there before the ‘Big Bang’ or, as the website blurb puts it, ‘What does modern cosmology have to say about the primordial Universe?’
Just went to see ‘Into Eternity’, Michael Madsen’s film about the Finnish nuclear waste repository ‘Onkalo’. I thought it was a great film that, for me, linked together a variety of things I had come across recently. Amongst other things these were: the Experimental Ruins workshop at UCL, Neal Stephenson’s book ‘Anathem’ that I finally finished reading, the Arts Catalysts’ ‘Atomic’ exhibition catalogue I came across, and the paper I’m currently writing about Mikhail Bakthin and his potential relevance to the debate around materiality in geography.
During the film, I had to think of a question someone asked during the last few minutes of the ‘Experimental Ruins’ workshop: can you have ‘future ruins’ – and what would they be? ‘Into Eternity’ seems to deal with exactly that. The film asks how we communicate the danger of the site to whoever comes across it between the time it is sealed until the time it is ‘safe’ – in approximately 100,000 years. The film’s strength, I find, lies in drawing out the clumsy ways in which this question is approached by the people in charge of the project: should art be used – and, if yes, what kind of art? Should warning markers with symbols be used or should the site be left to be forgotten so that no one will approach it in the future? How will future archaeologists deal with the ‘ruin’? Will there be archaeologists? Maybe another species will have evolved altogether? What level or kind of technology will they have? Will the dangerous waste perhaps be useful for them? As the main problem, it seems, emerges human curiosity – people may be particularly encouraged to ‘have a look’ if the site is marked as dangerous – similar to the explorers opening up the Egyptian tombs.
To me, the focus on human ‘cluelessness’ feels less like a statement that the project is in the wrong hands – that the authorities are rather naive about what could happen in 100,000. While this also plays a role, one gets the impression, that such questions would be (or are) equally clumsily approached by all of humanity. How are we dealing with a responsibility and other events stretched over such unimaginable timespans? This problem has also been pointed out by authors such as Barbara Adam (did Madsen read ‘Timescapes’ or ‘Future Matters’?), Nigel Clark (‘Inhuman Nature’) and Mikhail Bakthin (the ‘cosmic terror’ that humans experience from certain space-time scales and configurations). Like Adam, the film points to the enormous difficulties (impossibility?) of not only dealing with the spatialities, but especially the temporalities of our (less than?) sophisticated technological products and byproducts: the history of human civilisation only takes up a fraction of the time our dealings nuclear waste will demand of us. Throughout the film, the people working on the Onkalo project point out that they are placing the long-term danger in the care of the only example of such a long timespan they can relate to – the Finnish ‘bedrock’. Rock seems to undergo infinitesimal changes over thousands of years whereas the surface is permanently in flux – whether it is changes in climate, wars or the evolution of new species. The ‘universal scale’ waste is moved into a space that is operates differently and can ‘comprehend’ such scales. This is reflected in a joke the Onkalo officials share in front of the camera – that when they get to the bottom of the dig, they might find a copper barrel – left from a previous unknown civilisation.
Trailer for the book (!) ‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson
The film also made me think of Neal Stephenson’s science fiction epic (close to 1,000 pages!) ‘Anathem’. The novel is based on the ‘Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. In the world portrayed in most of the book, what we know as scientists and other academics (definitely philosophers – not sure if social scientists are allowed!), have been confined to monastery-like institutions where they are banned from undertaking empirical research. This way of life was imposed on them by the ‘saecular world’ after three occasions where research went horribly wrong on a large scale (the book suggests nanotechnology, genetic engineering and space-time manipulation). Some scholars, however, mastered the ability to move between worlds or parallel ‘narratives’ – and potentially even manipulate them. And this is how the civilisation in Stephenson’s book ends up dealing with nuclear waste: it is handed over to the scholars who are capable of switching to a narrative where physical damage from radiation does not exist. Translated into our current vocabulary: scientists/academics, ostracised from the rest of society, get to live on top of all sorts of hazardous leftovers of what previous generations of their kind conceived (there was actually an interesting review of ‘Anathem’ in the journal nature along this theme called ‘Imprisoned by Intelligence). Unlike in Onkalo, these hazards are kept in very primitive above ground facilities as their guardians do not need protection. In the story, most characters still understand what these hazards are, however, some hazards have morphed into legends such as a banned weapon merely known as the ‘Everything Killers’. One could argue that already now, in our world, we hardly know what exact hazards are being dealt with in our vicinity.
A theme that runs through ‘Into Eternity’ is the emphasis the ‘Onkalo’ officials place on protecting future beings that come across the site. In the Arts Catalyst’s ‘Atomic’ exhibition catalogue, the opposite theme is highlighted: As James Flint points out in the ‘Atomic’ catalogue, states withold information about certain kinds of hazards from not only their ‘enemies’, but also their citizens ‘even if their personal welfare was thereby put at risk’. While this statement alludes to the time of the Cold War, the more recent Arts Catalyst project Dark Places seems to continue this theme and raise the question what is currently concealed from us and why. Are we being endangered or protected or is there perhaps no such clear line? Again, the exploratory activities offered alongside the Dark Places exhibition seem to return to the theme of curiosity…
Excerpt from Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979)
One film that I would actually like to watch alongside ‘Into Eternity’ is ‘Stalker’, which got pointed out by a student in a recent group tutorial on science fiction portrayals of science. The film often seems to be portrayed as having predicted the desolation following events such as the Chernobyl disaster, thus inviting parallels between the mythic narrative of the film and the actual events. As artist-desiger John Coulthart goes as far as talking of the ‘Stalker meme’. One of his examples is the appropriating of the Stalker vocabulary and narrative: ‘scientists who study the forbidden region (and guides who take people there illegally) have referred to themselves as ‘stalkers”.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl computer game trailer
Further, a computer game based on the story imbues Chernobyl’s reactor hall (or an artifact within it) with the wish-granting abilities of the ‘Room’ – a central motif in ‘Stalker’. Further, a number of amateur short films based on the film as well as the computer game can be found on the net. On the basis on such examples, one could argue that Chernobyl is on its way to becoming one of the ‘temples’ mentioned in the Flint’s essay in ‘Atomic’… but not how it was intended by its builders.