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?

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Challenging Substance at ‘Radical Nature’


Image: Tomás Saraceno, Flying Garden. Source: Liverpool Biennial

Today (or rather yesterday, I should say!) , I treated myself to some inspiration from the outside world, away from my thesis. The events I had chose for this occasion were a talk on ‘Aquatecture’ and the ‘Radical Nature’ exhibition, both at the Barbican. Both events offered very interesting takes on ‘substances’. At the center of many of the works was architecture and its perception as clunky and inert. By showing that architecture could be nomadic, invisible, boundary-defying – or that invisble things have, in fact, substance, too, this notion was challenged.

In the ‘Aquatecture’ talk, for instance, architect Frank Gutzeit talked about a way of building structures in the ocean out of something called ‘biorock’. Biorock uses electricity to make limestone grow on steel structures which then attracts reefless corals and other flora and fauna. So rather than dumping a ready-made rock into the water and fearing its erosion, the alternative process makes use of the composition and other properties of sea water in order to generate material from it rather than losing material to it.

The Open_Sailing project introduced the idea of a nomadic, self-sustaining international ocean station. Their fascinating project summary can be found here.

The exhibition to which the talks were conneced featured many familiar artists, architects and other inventive figures, amongst these some I had not heard of before. Philippe Rahm, for instance, who presented his ‘Pulmonary Space’. The work is particularly fascinating for me, because it explicitly deals with materiality and immateriality. Arguing against aspects of the philosophy of Hegel, Pulmonary Space intends to visualise what is often perceived as ‘immaterial’ such as air and sound. By having musicians ‘build’ cloth formations through the use of their wind instruments, Rahm draws attention to the substance as well as the space-making of air and sound. If I can read my hastily scribbled notes correctly, some of the blurb on the wall read:

‘Sound and voice are not abstract or dematerialised, even though they are invisible, they are no more transcendent than a stone or soil, and they most certainly do possess a physical, chemical and biological dimension.’

(Somewhere there is some punctuation missing I feel…) Waves possess architectual form, the materiality of air is used by organisms such as viruses. Rahm seems to work on this theme in several other works, for instance, Paradise Now! which creates spaces through smell. Molly Wright Steenson has written an interesting post on her blog on Rahm’s ‘invisible environment’ and the ‘new geography’ he envisions. I’d like to look into this a little more in the future!

Tomás Saraceno had devised another air-inspired concept, that of the ‘flying garden’ – part of his ‘Air-Port-City’ series. Again, a nomadic structure, this time its structure and inhabitants designed to be ‘air-sufficient’. Whereas Buckminster Fuller’s design focused on the perfection of the triangle, Saraceno has formed an almost spiritual bond with the ‘bubble’. A more in-depth explanation of the project can be downloaded here (PDF).

A take on invisibility and chaos appeared in the form of ‘Symbiosishood’ by architects ‘R&Sie(n)’. I first thought the name was a play with the German words for his and her (er und sie), but it turned out that it was a play on the French word for ‘heresy’. That made more sense! The ‘Symbiosishood’ piece was fascinating not only in terms of its location (a minefield between North and South Korea), but also its relation to its plant environment, which continues to proliferate because of the adverse political situation and ‘redefines its own rights in monstrous uncontrolled entropy’ – according to the architects. The building, its design based on a termite mound and its eccentric surface entirely camouflaged with an ‘invasive’ plant species, becomes symbolic of the ‘disease of the location’. The amusing thing is that when you see the blueprints, they contain quite ‘ordinary’ living spaces such as a bookshop or a cafe etc. What a combination! After having a look around their exhibition space, I was not quite sure about their notion of ‘entropy’, especially the ‘entropy’ of ‘non-domesticated nature’. I think Michel Serres, Barbara Adam, Manuel DeLanda and at least some other theorists would have to say something about/against that…

As for the contributors I had heard of, one continues to draw me in, and that is Joseph Beuys. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to watch the 57 minute (!) film that was running in the space dedicated to his work as it was near closing time. I caught a few bits which, strangely, also related to chaos. In Beuys case, chaos was embodies in materials such as grease which is transmuting between a definite and an indefinite state. Grease, wax and honey played a central role in Beuys’ work as ‘energy storers’. What inspires me most about him is his thoughts about process and thinking. As an example, for Beuys, food turns into energy which fuels out thinking. Or: the physical and thought processes that lead to an artwork are the actual artwork, rather than the resulting object. Beuys elevates the creativity of thinking, speaking and writing to the status of art. In fact, ‘everything that people place out there… should exist in the world as a question looking to be augmented, improved, enhanced’ (Beuys in ‘What is Art?’). His ideas about human-evironment relationships are equally interesting, after which our thinking and our conversations are part of ecology, but this connection is invisible to us unless we train ourselves to see it. Interestingly, the eye-opener to this relation, for him, was working with materials and learning about material processes.

Last but not least, I would like to include a video of the famous ‘Blur Building’ by Diller and Scofidio, which is often used as an example of an architectural work that questions the nature of space and spatial boundaries. And it does this in the form of a habitable cloud!

If you like to see more ‘geographical challenges’ such as Agnes Denes’ amazing Wheatfield project, visit the ‘Radical Nature’ exhibition at the London Barbican (until 18 October). Unfortunately, there is not much of the exhibition online. However, they have started to put a few videos up which you can also watch via youtube.