AHRC PhD opportunity ‘Curating Art and Science’

This landed in my inbox today. Might be of interest to some readers…

The Arts Catalyst, London with The Department of Geography Royal Holloway, University of London

Core Supervisory team: Dr Harriet Hawkins (RHUL) and Nicola Triscott and Dr Rob La Frenais (The Arts Catalyst)
Applications are invited for a fully funded PhD studentship at the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London in partnership with The Arts Catalyst, London.
The deadline for applications is 22nd October 2012.
The successful applicant will start in January 2013. Interviews will be held in early November.

Project Summary:

Recent contemporary arts projects have directly engaged with, or taken as their subject, a range of sites, spaces, practices, ideas, and cultures of science and advanced technology. These trans-disciplinary art projects present highly varied contexts for research, production and exhibition, and working alongside The Arts Catalyst this studentship will investigate the practical, curatorial and production demands posed by these projects. Exploring and potentially participating in the commissioning and curation of arts projects that engage with science critically and experimentally, this studentship will ask research questions including:

– How do art-science projects engage and extend the practices of curation?

– What sorts of critical engagements with the spaces of scientific research and artistic production do these projects generate?

– What lessons can be learnt about the challenges and possibilities these projects raise for cultural producers and curators?

– How do art-science projects contribute to our understandings of the geographies of art and science?

This is one of three PhD studentships funded in the area of art science projects, and the student will benefit from an extended network of fellow post-graduates and supervisors working in this field. The other studentships are based with Prof. Deborah Dixon (University of Glasgow) and Prof. Michael Woods (Aberystwyth University).

For details about the studentships and how to apply, go to further information [pdf].

Further enquiries regarding this studentship can be made to

Harriet Hawkins : harriet.hawkins@rhul.ac.uk
Nicola Triscott : nicola.triscott@artscatalyst.org


How on Earth does one have an Earth in politics? … and other themes from the Terra Infirma workshop

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/Anthropocene

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).

Feminist theory

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

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?


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’

Session 3 – Embedding Experimental Geopolitics
Andrew Barry – ’Geopolitical fieldwork’
Alan Ingram – ‘Contested visibilities: geopolitics and contemporary art’

‘The most striking things we have been producing is people’ – Notes on innovation

How far should people be empowered – and in what kinds of ways? Through my research, which involves enabling different kinds of people to make creative contributions to anything from the development of new technologies to attempts to solve environmental problems, I have become aware of the increasing rhetoric around people as co-experimenters/co-innovators/co-researchers. It is interesting to hear from ‘grassroots’ activists such as the ‘open design’ front that governments are opposed to ‘open innovation’, while, more and more, politicians describe co-innovation as a citizen’s duty. This contradiction was fully enacted at the ‘Futur En Seine’ festival in Paris or, at least, on the day I attended. Unfortunately, I had made a mistake while setting my watch, so I turned up on British time, which meant, I missed the first two or so presentations. Luckily, the presentations I caught were very relevant to the debate. The first one I caught, sitting next to a giant humming projector, was by Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms on the ideas behind – and the activities of – the FabLab project (see above video for a similar presentation).

As far as I understand, FabLabs are part of the outreach of the Center for Bits and Atoms. The labs are installed in places all over the world with some equipment and mentors, but, rather than seek to teach people how to produce identical stuff with identical tools, their aim is to work with already available materials and techniques, in order to produce truly local technology. Gershenfeld explained the reason why the programme was put into place as wishing to provide a model which offers true empowerment. FabLabs, he noted, should especially be considered as a better model of development, in the sense that the widely-used ‘aid – education – business’ model does not seem to work. By contrast, FabLabs offer a model that could be described as: empowerment, education, problem-solving, job-creation, in(ter)vention. The important thing, Gershenfeld emphasised, is to focus on humans, not products. As he put it: ‘the most striking things we have been producing is people’.

The take on ‘producing people’ was relayed by Bror Salmelin from the European Commission. His super-fast presentation was difficult to follow in detail, but I managed to catch the main ideas. These are also boiled down to (to stick with his cooking metaphor) at the beginning of the following video as the necessity to involve ‘all players’ to form a ‘new societal contract between individuals, businesses and society as a whole’:

At the Futur En Seine conference, Salmelin started by painting a picture of lack: current lack of skills, of networks, of connectivity (it was not clear whether he was talking about the internet or innovation in general). He contined by reporting that the commission had come to the conclusion that expert/science based innovation ‘is not mainstream anymore’. The consequence had to be a re-think, but one that required ‘courage’ on the part of the government (and potentially everyone else involved) not only in terms of governance, but in terms of funding and creating the right environments and networks. Half-way through the presentation the tentativeness gave way to appeals to curiosity and exporation and to pleas to ‘make things happen’.

The reason for citizens to participate, according to Salmelin, should be to move away from the status of user/consumer/object of innovation to a more active form of consumer who co-shapes the products and services s/he wants. The benefits were both sold as giving citizen-consumers more control over innovation through their input, but also as benefitting European economic health. The idea that came across was that capturing citizen-innovation (= maximising the use of ‘national intellectual capital’) would lead to a ‘more sustainable world’. The subsequent panel, consisting of all presenters from that particular session, brought out even more strongly the duty of citizen to become part of, as Salmelin put it, ‘living labs’. Many designers agreed that everyone needed to take responsibility for the future to help figure out how to make it more sustainable, to change unhelpful systems.

As part of the same post-talk discussion, I also noticed other means with which the need to participate was supported. Examples include the creation of paranoia through phrases such as ‘Who owns your data and can capitalise on it? Regulation is not enough – please participate!’, and the appeals to responsibility and choice (the motto of the festival read: ‘Et vous, le futur, vous le voulez comment?’ And you, how would you like the future to look?)

There are so many interesting things in the current discussions around innovation that one could fill at least one entire book  (most probably, they have been written already). What I started probing during the festival was the tension between ‘experimentation’ and ‘open innovation’ being seen as both as grassroots-developments (by designers and some politicians and academics) and as ‘top-driven’ (mostly by other academics and politicians): where does the imperative to innovate come from? And who benefits from it? Another question is: what kinds of ‘system change’ is aimed for, and what kind of changes will be tolerated? If the imperative to innovate is top-driven or dependent on existing structures, is innovation merely there as a last resort to keep the overall ‘unhelpful’ system alive?

This problem was particularly evident in the ‘Open Design’ workshop I attended, where most of the energy seemed diverted into determining how to fit open innovation models within existing economic models/funding structures, and, of course, into devising ways of making processes more transparent in the face of copyright: how can money be made from open design? How can the economy in general profit from it? A strong trend appeared to be the investment in a maker-centred (neo-medieval?) model, in which the designers offer the blueprint for the product, the customer downloads it and takes it to the maker, pays the maker, and the maker shares the profit with the designer. Another model was to create income by producing limited editions (as physical products) which would attract design afficionados who are willing to pay for exclusivity. This is not to say that open design is full of misguided idealists who unknowingly aid capitalism in spreading further out of control. But there are issues that are currently not being debated enough. As one workshop participant put it: there is a difference between a community model and a business model. How can we invent truly sustainable systems?

Some useful thoughts on the ‘knowledge economy’ can be found in a lecture and article by anthropologist Marilyn Strathern. Although she focuses on how academic research is affected by the ‘paradigm for innovation’, many parallels can be drawn with other areas in terms of managing ‘innovative’ output and the artificual creation of conditions for innovation.

Questions around innovations also surfaced during a panel on synthetic biology. The event, entitled ‘We Neet to Talk About Synthia’ was part of the art-science workshop ‘Synthesis’, a collaboration between UCL and Arts Catalyst. (Some bits of the event can be found as videos here.) I remember being very happy about the kinds of questions that got raised. In fact, I was so happy that I ended up with about 30 pages of notes (not A4, mind you).

The evening began with a short introduction by social scientist Jane Calvert, who is also part of the Synthetic Aesthetics project, based at the universities of Edinburgh and Stanford. Two more discussants (Alistair Elfick and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg) were part of this project. The first part of the discussion mainly took place between scientist John Ward, engineer Alistair Elfick, artist Oron Catts – and, later, the audience.

Synthetic biology had already come up in the context of ‘open design’ at the Futur En Seine conference. An example mentioned was the iGEM competition, which also resurfaced during the ‘Synthia’ event. At the Paris debate, Neil Gerschenfeld said that he does not believe that we are going to “outbiology our biology’ through experimentation with synthetic life. A similar idea was expressed by John Ward who, after giving a brief (and refreshingly clear) overview of his research, stated that ‘we are not going to replace anything in technology (or nature), but complement what is there’. ‘What is there’ was further illustrated by Alistair Elfick: he explained that there are currently about 20,000 known molecules ‘made by nature’, but about 30,000 potentially existing molecules that have yet to be found or synthesized.

The most disturbing aspect for most audience members, judging by the questions, seemed to be what Oron Catts dubbed the ‘paradigm of engineering’ that appears to dominate experimentation with all levels of life from the ‘nano’ to the ‘geo’ (via neuro, bio etc). Politicians, scientists and engineers appeared to see life as too much as in need of instrumentalisation, in order to end up, as Elfick phrased it, ‘hopefully doing useful things for mankind’. Not only was this ‘engineering mindset’ regarded as problematic in terms of its human-centredness, but also in terms of its generation of an illusion of control over nature: it seems easier to focus on engineering problems/solutions than to address how these problems arrive in the first place. Also, it was feared that humans were being engineered in the process, either literally or as a side-effect. There was a sense of alarm about a ‘flatness of value’ of life that was being introduced into society.

Elfick and Ward tried to counter these concerns in different ways: Elfick argued that ‘we have already been using life in a very instrumental way’, so using life-forms for our own good should be seen as more of a natural continuation, rather than a drastic step or paradigm shift; Ward emphasised that he hoped to gain a better understanding of natural processes through his research, in order to advance the development away from an oil-based economy towards something more renewable. Catts, on the other hand, suggested that to apply real engineering principles to biology is very much a new field/mindset.

Audience probing also led to the topic of funding: who is pouring money into synthetic biology? What ‘products’ are expected from researchers? As one audience member put it: ‘will we see things designed on purpose under the capitalist system?’ In other words, will we have innovation for innovation’s sake, to cater to the most promising markets rather than to the greater good? Ward answered this question after some hesitation. He was ‘not sure what to make of that’. He stated that he is usually more concerned with finding out how creative/innovative we can be. To him, there were potentially radical applications – from the practical to the decorative. He mentioned the example of melanin control, which could be used to produce decorative patterns on your body, but also to alter your body in radical ways. Elfick described how research money came from different sources in different countries: in the UK mainly from research councils, in the US, a lot of ‘oil money’ and corporate money was funding the research.

Standardisation and the elimination of ‘imperfection’ was another topic addressed by both panellists and audience. Elfick proposed that standardising was connected to the drive to make things accessible. Ward reminded that everything in biology evolves through imperfect replication and that noone wanted to engineer this capacity away. As for accidental releases of ‘powerful things out there that close down the possibility for ‘imperfect life” (audience member quote), Ward believed that ‘there are systems in place that keep things in check, that make sure nothing happens’. Elfick stated that it was the challenge to work with biological organisms that evolve, instead of working with predictable, stable things that attracted him to the subject in the first place. And there are indeed, considerable challenges (for examples of synthetic biology challenges, check out ‘Five hard truths for synthetic biology’ by Roberta Kwok in nature news).

The concern about a potential elimination of imperfection was also extended into engineering society. Here, Catts referred to the latent desire to find biological evidence for containing behavioural misfits (i.e. political dissidents?). Elfick rejected this idea by pointing to the ‘big gap between modifying microbes and modifying humans’. Also raised was the question of perfection and of beauty: what do the scientists and engineers view as beautiful. This difficult question was tackled by Elfick who hopes that current research would ‘create things that are as beautiful as the ones we are working with. It would be nice to engineer the environment around us as pleasant as possible, for instance, without monoculture’.

Due to technical problems, the Q & A had to stop early, although some questions kept being debated over drinks before the second set of presentations. At the beginning of the evening, Oron Catts had mentioned the difficult role of the artist working with science and technology: while having the duty to contribute to creating ‘cultural language for things that are happening in labs’, the artist is also exploiting this to profit from it. The three artist who presented their work in the second half of the event negotiated this tension in different ways.

The first artist, Tuur Van Balen, began by announcing his interest in ‘stuff we cannot quite predict’. One of his questions was: ‘how do we know what direction is forward/sideways’. His project ‘Pigeon D’Or’ addressed this in a rather humorous way: what if pigeons became real technologies and part of architecture? Would people interact with pigeons differently if they shat soap – and, if yes, how? What effects on city living would this engineered ‘technology’ have?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King discussed their project E.chromi, their ‘infiltration’ of the international iGEM student competition for synthetic biology. The research-and-critique-in-one they presented consisted of engineered bacteria that can identify and signal pollutants in water through colour changes. The latter half of their presentation showed how what kind of consequences their invention might have: from yoghurt that colours stool if a particular disease is present in the body to terrorist groups fighting the patenting of particular ‘colours’.

Last on was Andy Gracie and his ‘Quest for drosophilia titanus’: to breed fruit flies that can live on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Inspired by sources such as NASA’s investment in astrobiology and experiments in the direction of terraforming, he decided to embark on a project that would explore the possibilities of and for life – and that simultaneouly asked how far you can follow the scientific method and still end up with art. Relating some rather grim anecdotes from the experimentation phase (note: I’m so glad I’m not a fruit fly, whether inside or outside of a laboratory!), he offered his experimental set-up, including mutated fruit flies and lab diary, for inspection by the audience.

No more organised debate followed, instead the discussion was continued at the individual ‘artist tables’. One question that remained for many at the end of the event was: what more can be said or done at this point? Do we have to wait until new technologies are developed to a stage where they are a radical new step – or can we somehow influence how technology is being conceived?

Event: KOSMICA @ Arts Catalyst

Just got this in my mailbox: a ‘new series of galactic gatherings for earth-bound artists, space engineers, performers, astronomers, musicians and anyone interested in exploring and sharing space in original ways.’ The event is called ‘Kosmica’ and is put on by the Arts Catalyst. It’s FREE, and takes place at The Arts Catalyst headquarters, 50-54 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1M 5PS (7-10pm).
Another good thing about it: it’s on my birthday, so I’ve definitely got my entertainment sorted! I wonder whether my friend Gagarin or Kosmische DJs will be playing…

See you there!

Ruins of the far future

‘Into Eternity’ trailer

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.

Update: Experimental Ruins & Public Engagement

Sorry about the on-going silence. Am currently in the last few weeks of writing my thesis, which proves to be a very immersive process. In the meantime, I have been at a workshop on ‘Experimental Ruins’ at UCL, organised by geographer Gail Davies and artists Neal White and Steve Rowell. The workshop was an opportunity to brainstorm ideas about experimentation and the relationship between geography, art and science. More about this in the near future…

Something else I thought readers may be interested in is the latest ScienceWise newsletter, which features a few interesting interviews. One is with mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy, in which he discusses his wishes for future science engagement. Amongst other things he would like people to get involved in ‘doing science’ and ‘get their hands messy’. Another interview is with Pippa Hyam, one of the directors of ‘Dialogue by Design’. She talks about motivations for engaging publics and emphasises that new public engagement ‘tools’ should be used meaningfully.
There is also a new report that has come out about ‘Widening Public Involvement in Dialogue’, which can be downloaded for free!

On Fabricating Invisibility – The Office of Experiments’ Secrecy and Technology Bus Tour

This Saturday, Mutable Matter was invited (thanks Gail & Nicola!) to join a ‘Secrecy and Technology’ bus tour, led by artists from the Office of Experiments and facilitated by Artscatalyst, the John Hansard Gallery Southampton and SCAN as part of the Dark Places exhibition. I had travelled down the night before to stay at a friend’s house and, refreshed from cream-covered slices of Lee’s divine lemon cake, a surprisingly entertaining Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, a novel toothpaste experience and a good night’s sleep, we set off the following morning on our most surreal coach tour so far…

The tour was centred mostly around Cold War technology and targeted places such as Porton Down and Chilbolton Observatory. Unfortunately, we could not access most of these sites, but were able to come quite close with our coach while our tour guides supplied us with any information they managed to get their hands on from official facts to conspiracy theories. At one ‘prohibited place’ some of us even descended into a seemingly randomly placed & publicly accessible nuclear bunker.

At lunchtime, catering was provided at (thankfully not by?) the International School for Security and Explosives Education (ISSEE) who also supplied us with a short insight into their work. The ISSEE is on the grounds of the famous Chilmark quarries which were used as an ammunitions store for about fifty years from the 1930s, and recently became a commercial mine again. It was interesting to hear that the school does not only train explosives experts, but also medial professionals who have to deal with the physical and mental effects of bomb exposure.

The last stop was the Royal Signals Museum, which did not only provide a short history of military signalling, but also kitted out more than a few artists with survival gear…

For someone like me, who currently engages a lot with ‘invisible risk’, the tour added another dimension to this term. Our contribution to making these technologies invisible was brought more to the foreground than ever through the seamless running-into of fields, thick, moss-saturated vegetation, ‘banal’ everyday life and secret MOD-fenced spaces surrounded by a multitude of founded and unfounded rumours. It resulted in the question of how much of this invisibility is not just a ‘material condition’, but ‘man-made’. In the case of the particular sites we visited, how much was the invisibility fabricated by those wanting to keep what happens at these sites secret, and how much we play a part in fabricating this invisibility ourselves?

On the bus this led to discussions about how one should (or can) act around such sites as an individual or group. Demand access? Trust the government? Draw more attention to them as a form of vigilance? What alternatives are there to having such sites?

Being primarily attended by artists, another question on the tour was: what effect can art engaging with such sites have? The introduction to the Office of Experiments website actually reads: ‘the proper contribution of art to society is art’. Back to square one? Maybe the way to go really is, as the site further suggests, to (self-)experiment and follow the outcomes… any other suggestions?