Image Source: ESpRi-EPFL
I have just received an announcement of the Risk inSight exhibition, which is taking place at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (thanks to Gail Davies for this!). Similar to previously discussed exhibitions ‘nano’ and ‘Science + Fiction’, Risk inSight is also going to travel to other countries. Will try to find out which venues it is going to pass through. If anyone has any information on this, please let me know!
The aim of the exhibition, again, seems to be to make risks visible/tangible and to create dialogue. Here is an excerpt from the website:
‘Forecasting stock market crashes, simulating river flooding, controlling air traffic, building an Olympic stadium or refuge in the high mountains, burying nuclear waste, etc. All of these seemingly unrelated activities do, in fact, have one fundamental point in common: they all involve risk.
While risk is everywhere, must we live in fear of it? In response to the media hype surrounding each new “crisis”, this exhibition goes against the grain by asking “is living with risks really such a big deal?” From carelessness to panic and from zero-risk to disaster, this exhibition reflects on the notion of “risks” using different scenarios and highlights how and why risks play an increasingly important role in life in modern society.’
The exhibition will be broken down into four sections: Identifying, Living With, Discussing and Handling Risks and will feature a mixture of interactive art and ‘expert commentary’ from a variety of fields including science, geography, architecture and finance.
Risk inSight will open on 15 October 2012 (at 6pm) and close on 15 November.
Venue: Rolex Learning Centre, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
Opening hours: Mon-Fri: 10am – 6pm, Sat: 10am – 8pm.
More Details can be found on the website.
Catalogue coming soon.
Image: from David Maljkovic ‘Scene for a New Heritage’ Triology (Part 2)
Last moth, I attended WJT Mitchell’s lecture on ‘Migration, Law and the Image. Beyond the Veil of Ignorance’ at UCL’s Law Faculty. I should say ‘managed to attend’, as it was not terribly easy to find it: three different venues were given by three different websites. As the lecture was on the subject of migration, I wondered whether this was part of the event (and Mitchell’s argument), but it turned out to be no more than a case of miscommunication. What I also did not realise was that Mitchell’s talk was followed by two more presentations, one by Parvati Nair, and one by Ingrid Boccardi which added vital context. Particularly Boccardi’s presentation on migration and responsibility was intensely thought-provoking, addressing concepts such as ‘atomised borders’, ‘meta-legal spaces’ and their (deadly) consequences. To me, as a geographer, it was fascinating to suddenly see myself and others as part of legal spatialities, becoming aware such simple things as that ‘the right to go nowhere’ is already a major right.
Instantly drawn to the theme of art and transformation from the beginning of the lecture, I found myself noting down all the words Mitchell linked to art during his presentation and the Q & A and ended up with the following list: powerful, highlighting, intervention, responding, reinvention, revision, border-crossing, opening, revealing. These associations happened to be picked up on by another geographer in the audience, Alan Ingram, who asked what happens after artistic experimentation and revelation. Michell’s answer to this was that the consequences of artistic creation are potentially consciousness-raising and providing new imaginaries – but in a ‘totally unpredictable’ way. To him, especially images (artistic images, it seemed) are ‘pseudo-lifeforms’ that are ‘somehow uncontrollable’. This uncontrollability appears to make them a potential carrier of resistance. As Mitchell continued: ‘I think of the image as the wildside – as the one who strains against the law’.
The theme of artistic (and architectural) creation as something unpredictable or uncontainable was continued a few days later at two other events I visited: the Cities in Conflict conference at the ICA and a seminar by Andrew Herscher at Goldsmiths College, although, here, its containment appeared to be at the centre of discussion. (Unfortunately, I had to miss out on a large part of the first event, due to other committments, so it would be great to hear if any of the speakers I missed addressed this theme.) The first panel of ‘Cities in Conflict’ focused on architecture and its relation(s) with conflict. The first speaker was Mark Cousins, who talked about his plans to organise a conference ‘against health and safety’ (one can only imagine the possibilities for potential conference venues!). His presentation consisted mainly of anecdotes of health & safety regulation taking a turn for the absurd. To Cousins, such (over)regulation ‘cancels out the possibility for architects to create pleasurable, interesting spaces’. For him, misguided creative engagements with social problems such as anti-paedophilia windows (installed in buildings near playgrounds etc) express that ‘utopia is only a heartbeat away from dystopia’.
To me this quote resonated strongly with the Unesco symposium on public art and the artist’s negotiation of risk. In this case, it is the artist/designer responding to developments in regulation with attempts to contain the ‘unpredictable’. In the above case, the anxiety is provoked by imagining the possibilities of how an ‘ordinary’ window might be used by different residents. Again, what is interesting here is the imagination of unpredictability as both residing in human behaviour, but also in the (trigger?) object. If the unpredictable not only resides in/emenates from artworks, but also simple everyday objects such as windows, one does not want to imagine what kind of ‘creative’ practices and forces the containment of unpredictability might attract (imagine what a door could (make people) do!). A question that manifests to me at this point would be: how is the unpredictability in art different from the unpredictability of non-art? Is the art-object just more likely to transform or trigger certain behaviour in humans? According to Jacques Rancière, ‘all forms of art can rework the frame of our perceptions and the dynamism of our affects’ (this quote is taken from ‘The Emancipated Spectator’). He proposes that through this capacity they can open up new pathways to our relations or actions (for instance, as a political subject). The emphasis here is on ‘can’: art also has the ‘right to go nowhere’.
The next two speakers (Andrew Herscher and Eyal Weizman), in fact, demonstrated how the potential meaninglessness of an artistic or architectural creation is strategically ignored. In his presentation at ‘Cities in Conflict’, Andrew Herscher pointed to the destruction caused by efforts to renew or reinvent in post-conflict zones. Showing images from reconstruction efforts, he illustrated how these, in some parts of former Yugoslavia, not only destroy more than the actual conflict itself but even annihilate local industry and replace existing habitable space under the banner of ‘modernisation’, thus leading to disempowerment/cultural disenfranchisement of large sections of the population and illegal housing. In contrast to the imagination of architectural intervention as leading to positive transformation in a post-conflict environment, and to a creation of new meaning, Herscher argued that this kind of reconstruction leads to continued ‘redestruction’. (At this point one might wonder what the ‘life’ the images of this redestruction might have….)
Next on was Eyal Weizman – famous for his own banned creative intervention – and his analysis of the ‘pedagogy of war’. Because of the difficult acoustic situation (Weizman did not have a microphone), my notes on his talk are rather patchy. What I did note down is the theme of ‘health and safety in war’: the seeming absurdity of ‘proportionality of destruction’ (which had also been mentioned by Ingrid Boccardi, if I remember correctly – e.g. there is a fixed number of people you are allowed to kill per square metre before you become a war criminal) and architecture’s implication in it. This implication appeared to not only lead toarchitecture being designed to accomodate for/prevent certain atrocities, but also seemed to result in a kind of ‘curation’ of (current and former) warzones (‘designing ruins’) for certain effects on social consciousness. Weizman also seemed to suggest that the role of post-conflict ‘architecture to help people forget and to corrupt into distracting them from the issues that might cause warfare’. If such architectural projects are as unpreditable as Mitchell’s artworks or as ‘successful’ as the ‘regeneration’ in Andrew Herscher’s presentation, one could ask what new conflicts they give rise to, if their aims are met at all.
The issue of post-conflict curation and the politics of memory was opened up for more in-depth discussion by Andrew Herscher in his seminar at the sociology deparment at Goldsmiths, albeit under the theme of ‘heritage’. To me, the seminar highlighted some astonishing parallels between research on heritage and research on hazard containment which became encapsuled in Herscher’s phrase ‘negotiating the enormous gap between the perserving subject and the preserved object’ and his example of David Maljkovic’s Scene for New Heritage’: both areas seem to be dealing with the problem that meaning is not only transformed over time, but can disappear entirely. Like Maljkovic’s future visitors to a war memorial who have no idea what they are seeing (and who we perceive akin to an alien species), future visitors to all kinds of waste disposal sites, or what Neal White from the ‘Office of Experiments’ calls ‘experimental ruins’ (e.g. abandoned laboratories, weapon test sites or power stations), might end up completely unaware of the ‘conflict’ (and potential physical danger/violence) that is inherent (or ‘memorialised’?) in those sites.
As already mentioned on this blog, projects such as Michael Madsen’s film ‘Into Eternity’ or Peter Van Wyck’s book ‘Signs of danger’ have already begun to analyse the ‘curation’ of hazardous waste sites for future visitors, which often involves the use of artworks to warn or distract. Like war monuments, these ‘waste monuments’ (or non-uments?) are conceived in expectation of future violence which, in this case, might involve the use of what is hidden below. Here, containment of unpredictability is as much part of the design process as the danger – or, at times, desired outcome – of meaninglessness. The challenge or potential of epic amnesia: (what) do we want future human(oids) to remember? An art project that spontaneously springs to mind is to make something that is ‘epically absurd’ in our time, with the prospect that it will be imbued with radical meaning in the future. Now, where is my commission?
As promised, some notes on the public art conference in Paris… Did not manage to catch all of the sessions, but a fair chunk of them. Having witnessed quite a few discussions on public art, I found this one surprisingly refreshing. Despite the appearance of very familiar elements, which can hardly be avoided, such as the definitions of a ‘public’ and ‘public art’ (the bit where people quote Habermas etc) or references to the relationship between art and architecture (usually including jokes about architecture as ‘art with plumbing’ – this time, supplemented by the evocative imagery of Monica Bonvicini’s ‘Wall Fuck’), I felt that the presentations highlighted issues that normally end up resonating in the background rather than appearing at the centre.
The first day of the conference took place in the new town of Cergy-Pontoise. Discussions began with aforementioned definition(s) of public art, which are naturally conflicting: public art as underlining the identity of a place, public art as reflecting democratic participation, public art as giving meaning to a place, public art as a vehicle for an artist to make a particular statement about the relations in a space – the result of which may be uncomfortable for particular publics – and, lastly, public art as a project for stirring the imagination, giving rise to new kinds of interactions and producing new visionaries from spectators.
Left to right: Jean-Louis Cohen, Elizabeth Auclair, Peter Eisenman, Antoine Grumbach, Rem Koolhaas.
Different architects, scholars, institutional officials and artists presented a spectrum of takes on public art. Architect Peter Eisenman, for instance, explained how he tries to highlight different times and their affiliated spatial organisations (historical, virtual, digital) in his work, such as medieval street patterns merging with contemporary forms and infrastructures. For Eisenman, such intersections but present opportunities to re-think urban space. It was not quite clear whether he meant opportunities for architects in the design phase (the architect/artist as ‘expert’ or visionary) or opportunities for anyone experiencing the finished result. Unfortunately, no questions from the audience were invited during this session. Other views were represented by Elizabeth Auclair (local institutional take, art as ‘for the locals’), Antoine Grumbach (architecture in the service of governing/economic forces, art as purely symbolic) and Rem Koolhaas (critic of public art/public art should challenge society).
There was frequent mentioning of the word ‘crisis’: the crisis of public art, the impact of economic, ecological and social crises on public art and/or how public art should respond to them – or whether people should bother with it at all given such (costly) challenges to society or general overbuilding (cultural sustainability versus ecological/economic sustainability). It was Rem Koolhaas who drew attention to what could be described as the crisis produced by the wish to avert crisis: the compulsory making-safe of public spaces. To Koolhaas, the urban past was full of adventure: one could encounter the unexpected, the ugly, the evil, the disgusting – but also the beautiful. Today, he argued, one only encounters manicured, sanitised spaces from which evil is increasingly ‘edited out’: no ‘hoodies’, no stretch of urbanity without CCTV, no challenging art or architecture. As a visual emphasis, Koolhaas used the safety net around London’s fourth plint – at the time of Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’ project. (There was some confusion at this point whether Koolhaas had built the CCTV headquarters or not, but it turned out to be China Central Television…).
Koolhaas proceeded by accusing artists of being complicit with such forces, of producing safe, smooth art, ‘without edges’ or confrontation: by claiming that public art is something for, about and by the public, art risks becoming the equivalent of a reality TV show. As an example, he showed the decorative ‘artwork’ which now replaces Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ – the arc having been removed after a public petition. He further argued that public art is excluding – certain groups of people or certain kinds of experiences – the artist being in danger of becoming a tool for furthering this exclusion, contributing to a growing ‘Berlin Wall in public space’.
Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981). Source: Culture Shock
New ‘humorous’ shapes occupying the same space. Source: Harvard University
Koolhaas concluded that ‘there is a lot of space to fill, but no stories to tell’. Thus, we are faced with a growing appearance of ‘narcissistic and megalomaniac’ monumental art, which even ends up being critically acclaimed. Here the example that triggered the most audible reaction was Anish Kapoor’s ‘Leviathan’ installation and the advertisement and other spectacle surrounding it (as an example for narcissism he mentioned Kapoor’s ‘Cloudgate’ in Chicago). Currently being exhibited in Paris at the Grand Palais, Koolhaas’ mentioning of the ‘Leviathan’ was not the only cynical comment on Parisian engagement with public art. Koolhaas called this phenomenon ‘consolation instead of confrontation’. His presentation ended on the question whether the link between the growing popularity of the virtual vs the declining vitality of ‘real’ public space may have something to do with application of a ‘security blanket’ to the urban.
Moderator Jean-Louis Cohen had the unenviable job (twice!) to bring the seemingly irreconcilable views of the above mentioned participants (with the later additions of Yona Friedman and Monica Bonvicini) into dialogue with one another. The first part of the discussion mainly focused on Koolhaas’ points: the ‘tyranny of programmatic restraints’ (Cohen), whether the current emphasis on the virtual could prompt a rethinking of the ‘real’ (Eisenman) or whether city official can engage in ‘risk-taking’ (Elizabeth Auclair). Later questions around art and democracy, and public art and functionality, culminated in Cohen’s ingenious term ‘espace poubellique’ (a merging of ‘espace public’ = public space and poubelle = rubbish or rubbish bin): public space as the space where ‘crap’ art is dumped. The lack of critical currency in the art world for most of public art (e.g. the much ridiculed French ‘roundabout art’) was also the basis for the question what motivates artists to produce it.
Yona Friedman and Monica Bonvicini
Another provocative presentation was made by artist Monica Bonvicini whose opener ‘I don’t like public art very much!’ resulted in a mixture of nervous giggles and disbelief on the part of the audience. Making further statements about the function of public art such as art being invited to embellish bad architecture, publics not being interested in public art (‘What do people think about public art? I don’t think they think very much!’) or public art being invited seemingly as an aesthetic addition to increase the value of public life (’Of course, everybody likes art, but what kind of art?) , she outwardly came across as someone who was making fun of the whole event, but, in a jester-like fashion, was able to make statements that hit a lot of the right nerves, especially around the connections between public art and politics (‘Politicians have very different idea of what art is and what art should do.’). Her own public art seemed to take further Koolhaas theme of narcissism: after struggling with all the different demands made upon her as an artist, she ended up displaying words ‘SATISFY ME’ in big letters – to be read out by all the different stakeholders.
Image Source: Wikipedia. User: Arnoldius
Against this cynical view, Yona Friedman offered his ‘socialist’ vision of ‘new urban spaces’, in which artists and architects become (re-)interpreters and mediators of existing public space and public art. Presenting his work in hand-illustrated slide-shows, Friedman invited thoughts around the value of public participation and improvisation in public space (‘Laissez les gens improviser!’). A quote that stuck with me was: ‘we like to imagine the improbable and are surprised when it becomes real’. Of course, this sentence could be interpreted in both positive and negative ways, but maybe that’s what I like about it – that there are not only extreme negative surprises, but potentially also positive results of ‘improbable imagination’. As I was told, Friedman was part of the reaction against the Modernist project alongside people such as ‘Team X’ who tried to disseminate alternative urban visions (e.g. see this book for more information on this).
Anish Kapoor and Jean Nouvel in conversation with Jean de Loisy (and each other)
On returning to Paris, the remainder of the day was spent at the Grand Palais, where a debate was staged between artist Anish Kapoor and architect Jean Nouvel, during which the theme of ‘art vs architecture’ continued. In the audience, I spotted a handful of museum assistants wearing T-shirts bearing the job title ‘médiateur culturel’. Could not help but think that Yona Friedman would appreciate their wider distribution!
Big thank you to Mireille Roddier for vital clarifications on debates in architecture & post-event discussions!
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.
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.