Event: New maps for an island planet

Image: Ackroyd and Harvey, Lost Souls, 2007

Another event I am very excited about: ‘New maps for an island planet’. It is a book launch and panel in relation with the ‘Interdependence Day’ project. The evening will involve ‘discussion about the creation of new maps for navigating the complex challenges presented by global economic and ecological crises’.

The panel, moderated by Quentin Cooper, will consist of geographer Doreen Massey, architect Carolyn Steel and writer Andrew Simms. The poet Lemn Sissay will also perform at this event.

The book that is being launched at this event is called ‘ATLAS: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World’, edited by Renata Tyszczuk, Joe Smith, Nigel Clark and Melissa Butcher. I also have a ‘map’ in this publication and will participate, alongside other people who have contributed to the ATLAS, in the Open Book session taking place after the panel. In this session, I will run my ‘Mutation’project.

Date: Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Time: 6:30 pm
Place: London, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
Tickets: £10, £5 concessions (you can book here)

The flyer/poster can be downloaded here.

Postscript: An edited podcast from this event is now available here.


Big Powers, Small Source – Comic Book Heroes

Part 1: ‘Atomic’ Heroes

While I don’t enjoy reading comics, I have a (very big) soft spot for how interactions with matter are imagined in comic book worlds – both story-wise and visually. Of course, there are a great number of other ‘super-powers’ such as omni-linguism, empathy or superhuman strength, but the manipulation of matter takes up the greatest part of superhero abilities – or matter giving the superhero his or her powers. The mutant Mr M, for instance, has ‘complete control over the form and structure of matter’. However, matter is not solely imagined as a substance to be manipulated. It affects the heroes in many different ways. First of all, the weird ways of radiation, subatomic particles, alien elements, non-linearity etc create the superhero. When it comes to superpower origin stories, it is quite amusing to read how many physicists or army people get blown to pieces during ‘nuclear accidents’ of some sort (e.g. Captain Atom, Firestorm, Solar). Is that how the authors imagine the safety standards in power stations, laboratories or the military? I hope they are not talking from personal experience… ;)

Secondly, a lot of heroes, like Mister M, while being potentially able to have ‘total control’ over matter, also let themselves be controlled by it, for instance, by succumbing to alcoholism or needing a substance that maintains their supernatural abilities. Other characters, like ‘toad boy’ are involuntary producers of a harmful or intoxicating substance and are not in control at all over what their bodies and/or their environment make them do.

Even more bizarre than an imagined population of matter-manipulating (and – manipulated) superheroes is the imagined depopulation of said superheroes in an event called ‘M-Day’, which eliminated millions of ‘mutants’. According to Marvel Comics, the move was necessary, because too many superheroes had ‘accumulated’ after more than 40 years of publishing. This has resulted in an argument over who is going to stay or go – or who gets ‘remutated’…

A more charming tendency of comic book imagination is the theme that things do not always work how the god-like heroes intend them to work: one hero (Solar) tries to create or re-create the universe after his liking, but the universe has seems to have its own ideas and Solar finds that not only is Earth now populated with a large number of superheroes, but is also threatened by super-powered ‘Spider Aliens’. So, you can’t have your cake and eat it even in a comic universe, but at least one comforting (?) morale remains: Murphy’s Law is valid for all beings.

So why am I doing this project?

I have a long-standing interest in how people relate to their environment, especially to processes that cannot be seen or felt, but which still have an impact on our world and our experiences.

During my two previous interactive projects, ‘Mutation’ (2003-4, 2007) and ‘Animal Lab’ (2005-6), I drew attention to the link between the desire for perfection and environmental degradation and the ability or inability to direct processes such as mutation. The idea for ‘Mutation’ came from looking at pallets of apples in a supermarket for too long. These supermarket apples looked the same: shiny, green, no blemishes and, unfortunately, no taste. What led to the ‘design’ of those uniform, aesthetically ‘perfect’ apples? Food security? The fruit industry pursuing consumer ideals? And how was this mass idealisation/uniformity achieved?

During the project, patterns of ready-to-wear white shirts symbolised ‘perfect’ DNA and the desire for perfection. Participants were asked to express their relationship with this perfection – in relation to DNA, the environment or their everyday life – by making the shirt they were given ‘imperfect’ to the degree they were comfortable with. All participants altered their shirts while relating the story behind those modifications. By wearing the shirts, these stories were spread, for instance, through questions from other people about their unusual aesthetics.

In the ‘Animal Lab’, people playfully modified and made up patterns of toy animals with the help of a ‘mobile laboratory’, while engaging in conversation about genetic engineering. The ‘Animal Lab’ experimented with humour – in the first instance by turning the story of genetic engineering somewhat upside down. While most animal or plant modifications are made to benefit humans, the participants were asked to help an endangered animal species survive by arming them against their threat. The participants were offered labcoats and different species to choose from. Again, the project resulted in rich dialogue and objects that could trigger further conversation.

During the ‘Animal Lab’, I started looing at reports from nanotechnology engagments. I found that, quite often, participants in those projects described engineered matter as ‘doing things’. While such statements were usually dismissed as paranoia, fear of the unknown or superstition, I wondered whether people did in fact perceive matter as not just something inert. So I set out to design a project that allowed people to talk about how they imagined matter – in all its ‘incarnations’. What do people think goes on inside and between them and a wall or a table or the air that they breathe? Is the ‘mutable matter’ of new technologies part of a separate world, or is everything potentially mutable? Is the ‘infinitely small’ world of atoms and strange material behaviour removed not only in scale (atoms always seem to be ‘down there’ when people write about them) but from how we perceive our everyday environment? And why are people always kept from exploring this space by deeming it ‘too difficult’ or ‘too boring’? ‘Mutable Matter’ is an attempt at communicating about this space and our relationship(s) with it.