Abuses of enchantment – Notes on the ‘Unknown Fields’ public debate

Here we go: sometimes following this blog is like waiting for a bus: for a long-time it seems like nothing turns up, and then three posts come along at once! So here is the third post, on the ‘Unknown Fields’ public debate at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (commonly referred to as the ‘AA’). As far as I understood, the event was part of the activities surrounding a particular architectural studio within the AA, called ‘Unknown Fields’ (led by architects Kate Davies and Liam Young). Partly a critique of exploration fuelled by notions of progress, partly a venue for learning and thinking up interventions, the studio addresses interfaces between nature and technology through field trips to areas which are a mix of ‘iconic wilderness’ and site of technological intervention (e.g. mining, tourism). The following day, the studio was to embark on a new field trip which would lead students, mentors and invited guests to places such as Chernobyl and the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Unfortunately, the event was subject to a lot of rescheduling (speakers, rooms, times), which saw some of presentations being moved to the next day – to Kiev. On the positive side, the event had an exciting mixture of speakers which were available for discussion during breaks, as well as free food & drink. Also, the AA is known for its rather exciting bookshop (attention bargain hunters: relocation sale on 20 July 2011!). The main part of the day was held in a room which looked like a cross between a Finnish home sauna and an amphitheatre (size-wise closer to the former) and featured several monitors, for presentation slides as well as muted films relating to the event. I completely forgot to take photographs – which usually means I was too busy thinking and taking notes, so all in all an interesting event!

The first session focused on our society’s engagement with the ‘atomic’ and mostly encompassed work that engaged creatively and critically with issues around ‘the nuclear’ (I use the singular of ‘society’ on purpose as different societies show remarkably similar ways of engaging with nuclear power). For me, this session raised questions around our fascination with all things nuclear – from the fearful to the enthusiastic: What kind of active or creative engagement goes in the right direction? Can ‘enchantment’ be a hindrance or even be abused by those wishing to sustain the industry? This theme continued through the ‘cosmic session’ in the late afternoon.

Michael Madsen, director of ‘Into Eternity’ and participant in the field trip, talked about the inability of humankind to act responsibly with something that stays highly toxic for 100,000 years, especially as ‘there is always something new we are learning about this technology’. He proposed that working with nuclear power was like trying to manage a new fire we cannot put out. Currently, our attempts to manage it are clumsy and have no comparison: we have nothing that compares to it in our experience, not even human structures that have lasted this long. He argued that ‘if we had something comparable, we could talk about it’ (e.g. human structures that have lasted this long). Madsen sees his film as a prompt to address the future. A problem that current attempts to bury nuclear waste are running into, is not only the problem of human curiosity, but of the transformation of civilisations. Proposals to have adjoint manned archives to waste repositories could morph over time from mundane archives of knowledge to temples of a nuclear priesthood of ‘fire keepers’, which holds uninformed population at ransom.

That ‘nuclear temple’ already exists in our time has not only been noticed by computer game developers but by writer Will Wiles who talked about ruins of technological disasters as destinations for ‘toxic tourism’. To him, our facination with ruins (‘ruin lust’) has less to do with a romanticisation of the past than with these ‘failed spaces’ inspiring us to project ourselves into a future (near rather than far) and how it is to live in it, the ruin and its origins in an optimistic past highlighting its precariousness. This actually mirrors current debates in geography on how this ‘enchantment’ with ruins can active interventions in the future.

I was especially excited about the presence of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. I came across her work when still a fashion student, and I credit it/her for majorly contributing to my path from doing sustainable design research in fashion design to becoming a geographer doing art and design based interactions around ‘risk’. Only knowing her drawings and essays (by her as well as about her), it was very helpful to meet her in person to get a more complete sense of how she works. While, earlier in the day, Peter Wynne Kirby had been discussing the prevailing image of a ‘fear of mutation’ in Japanese pop culture , Cornelia Hesse-Honegger was bringing it much closer to home. At the heart of her presentation was the disparity between the ‘official line’ that artificial low radiation is safe and contrasting research that it is unsafe. She argued that many scientists abstain from researching this area, because of the danger of having funding (or their job) withdrawn. She uses her position as an artist, employing scientific method, to do research and publish both artwork and scientific studies that do not have to rely on the usual channels of science funding.

Image: Scentless plant bug from Würenlingen, Switzerland
Source: Website of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger

Here, Hesse-Honegger drew parallels between research that took place before the Vietnam war on ‘Agent Orange’ and other herbicides and defoliants used in warfare. These poisons were used despite experiments showing that these had mutagenic effects on organisms – with scientists claiming not to have anticipanted their consequences. She concluded her presentation by pointing out that similar silence is now surrounding mutations in children near uranium mines, battlefields littered with depleted uranium ammunition or in children of soldiers working with this kind of ammunition. Studies are suggesting that effects are psychological rather than physical while physical effects are clearly observable.
The absurdity of some of the activities surrounding nuclear power was brought out further by Oliver Goodhall’s work ‘Nuclear is good – what will it take to convince you?’, which compared (contrasted would be the wrong word here) his seemingly absurd proposals for managing nuclear threat with real life proposals follwing a very similar vein.

The ‘cosmic session’ had inofficially been started with references to space by other presenters, most notably Michael Madsen whose new project with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (motto: ‘Bringing the Benefits of Space to Earth’) revolves around mapping alien encounters. Officially, it started with comic artist Paul Duffield who presented his latest work ‘Signals’. Inspired by SETI and Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series, his graphic novel – or ‘visual poem’, as he called it – looks at space in terms of our desire for meaning. Rather than as seekers of knowledge, Duffield sees humans as seekers of meaning. He suggested that ‘engaging with the cosmic might engage us with the meaning of significance’. In this sense, ‘Signals’, represents an appeal to ‘always have in mind the cosmic scale and not just our next lunch’.

The question is whether a consideration of the cosmic would make us more liable to act irresponsibly (‘what does such a small act matter?’) or whether it would force us to act in more meaningful or meaning-making ways. A cynical comment on this could be this (and also applying to Will Wiles’ ‘toxic tourism’) would be this Douglas Adams quote which I found on the ‘Unknown Fields’ webpage:

‘The End of the Universe is very popular… People like to dress up for it… Gives it a sense of occasion’ (From: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)

Hopefully, things look better than this!

Following on, writer Mark Pilkington illustrated how human fascination with the cosmic has (or is still being) abused as distraction. Calling it the ‘abuse of enchantment’, Pilkington used examples of the US government’s engineering of sites to would attract UFO enthusiasts in order to move citizen’s attention away from the truly sensitive sites to their use of superstition for the purpose of psychological warfare.

The question of what to do about all this misuse of technology or ‘enchantment’ with technology was at the center of Mario Petrucci’s presentation on ‘the artist and the self’ after Chernobyl (which could also have been called ‘Art is good – what will it take to convince you?’). While I could not really relate to his fish metaphor (and usually I can absolutely relate to fish metaphors, as many people know), he raised some interesting points (literally reciting several lists of points) about obstacles to counteracting the destructiveness of our society. Petrucci started by saying that we are caught up in patterns of destruction and inertia, which include a lack of willingness to break out of preframed thinking paths and concepts such as cost-benefit-analysis, near-term orientation, free markets and reducing all value to currency value. Instead, he proposed, that we need a ‘metaphoric economics’, based not on intellect alone but on imagination. And this is where art – any art: audio/visual, textual, sculptural – comes in for him as a combination of mid-wife, interface, vaccine and anti-dote.

To begin with, Petrucci conceded that art is not perfect: not only is there a lot of ‘bad art’ (war propaganda or art which is parasitic of spectacles, e.g. which would profit from a ‘Chernobyl industry’), but it also has a questionable reach. Quoting Woody Allen, he suggested that people are more likely to imitate ‘bad television’ than the visionary proposals of art. (A question discussed during the lunch break: does art merely reach the already converted?) Nevertheless, he maintained that ‘good art’ can do a number of useful things, if art : highlight problems, challenge or transform beliefs, assist in participation and render (itself? others?) proof against unhelpful ‘memes’ and perhaps ‘oust’ destructive imagination through offering more positive kinds of scenarios (‘art can put examples into people’s minds). How does art do it? According to Petrucci, it does so by ‘paying attention’, creating ”alertness nutrients’ for our world’, and by engaging the ‘entire self’.

Also important for Petrucci is that art puts disjunct pieces together into one ‘story of knowledge’. Somewhat counter to Donna Haraway’s ‘situated knowledges’, he refers to the creation of a story that encompasses all narratives, in order to show that ‘individuals, organisations, nations’ are all in this together. Another image Petrucci used in this context is Chernobyl as ‘not merely something that went wrong or that happened to us, but a material expression of the collective human self, of what makes us‘. He concluded his talk with an ‘action plan’ which, amongst other things, urged the audience to challenge ‘business as usual’ and voice a ‘yes’ to transformation and a better future, ‘even though we may not be sure yet what this ‘yes’ means’.  A move from a enchantment with technological disaster, leading to passivity, towards an enchantment with art, leading to activity? Following Petrucci’s argumentation, this is perhaps the only option we’ve got. After all, we are a ‘young, groping species’. The problem is that wreaking destruction is a form of groping as well. Let’s hope its benevolent form proves more popular in the long term… I’d certainly prefer to dress up for that!


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