The Sea and the Desert is a chapter in Henry David Thoreau’s chronicle of his extensive ‘sojourning’ around Cape Cod in the 1860’s.
We might think of rising sea levels and creeping desertification as uniquely contemporary symptoms of anthropogenic climate change but Thoreau noticed them way back in his day, recording with his characteristic eye for detail, a great many meteorological, ecological and human phenomena that together create the shifting territory of the thing we call ‘the Cape.’
This desert extends from the extremity of the Cape, through Provincetown into Truro, and many a time as we were traversing it we were reminded of “Riley’s Narrative” of his captivity in the sands of Arabia, notwithstanding the cold. …. In one place we saw numerous dead tops of trees projecting through the otherwise uninterrupted desert, where, as we afterward learned, thirty or forty years before a flourishing forest had stood, and now, as the trees were laid bare from year to year, the inhabitants cut off their tops for fuel.
Though Cape Cod has been in a state of constant flux ever since it was first bulldozed into place by the glaciers of the last ice age, there is a certain poignancy to its more recent, post-colonial history, as one of the first landfalls of European incursion into North America. The successive human waves that broke upon its shores left their own layers of deposition–the accumulated strata of hopes, ambitions and failures are embedded all over the landscape, if one knows where to look.
The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime.
It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up,—a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them. The carcasses of men and beasts together lie stately up upon its shelf, rotting and bleaching in the sun and waves, and each tide turns them in their beds, and tucks fresh sand under them. There is naked Nature, inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel amid the spray.
There is still a seething, hissing quality about the place; a sort of fragility too, as if all the quaint human infrastructure, the architectural bric-a-brac of National Seashore information kiosks, the tourist shops and thriving gay bars of Provincetown, the upscale beach houses and black-topped roads could all be washed away with the slightest turning in the weather.
Given my interest in disturbance ecologies, I was thrilled to be offered an artist’s residency at one of the Cape’s oldest houses, at a place called Phats Valley near the town of Truro. I was joined there by my friends and collaborators, Liz Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse of the New School, whose artistic practice focuses primarily on matters geologic and the study of deep time, and who both have had a long term aesthetic engagement with the landscape and culture of the Cape.
We set ourselves a mission of a contemplative nature: to endeavour to capture something of the essence of our locality in its current, Anthropocenic, moment; to attune ourselves to its ephemerality by simply walking, pausing and observing. Our inspiration was the 17th century Japanese poet Bāsho, who set set out on a five-month journey, documented in his poetic chronicle: Narrow Road to the Interior. While traveling, Bashō drew upon and modified the traditionally collaborative haiku practice known as renga, which incorporates sensations of place, events and allusions to literature, history and myth. Renga, in its most basic form, is written by multiple authors who link their verses, building upon each other’s words under the inspiration of the environmental and social contexts of the moment (the trees in bloom, the stage of the moon, and who else is present at the renga party.) At its best renga embodies the impermanence, the ‘this-ness,’ of an instant in time.
Deleuze gave (this) ‘this-ness’ a name, calling it haecceity, from the Latin ‘to behold.’
A season a winter, a summer, an hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject. They are haecceities in the sense that they consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and to be affected.
With the inspiration of Thoreau and Bāsho to guide us, Liz, Jamie and I set out under the great blue vault of a magnificent late summer sky to begin what the theorist Jane Bennett refers to as microvisioning, in reference to the way Thoreau practiced his art of engaged observation and deep attention–not an overly probing or systematic scrutiny–but rather more of a perceptual wandering; a seeing without preoccupied looking.
Go not to the object; let it come to you…
(Thoreau’s Journal 4:351)
From our base at the verge of time and space on the margin of Phats Valley’s picturesque salt marsh, we sojourned to various nearby localities, making a daily practice of easing into our immersive awareness, starting our sessions with conversation and tea before we delved into contemplative observation and ultimately, the generation of the renga stanzas. These take the format of (5,7,5,7,7) syllables. .
(5, 7, 5,7,7)
My gaze it returns
To dying rays of sunshine
A vulture circling
In an otherwise empty
Blue anthropocenic sky
Liz and Jamie’s long-standing relationship with the Cape complimented my situation of never having been there before, and writing together gave us the chance to meld our sensibilities and subjectivities, our responses to the environment and the material conditions we encountered; both in the perfect individuality of the moment and in the larger geologic and historic frameworks where these moments seem to float. I had just been at the massive (600,000 person strong) People’s Climate March in New York City–a watershed moment in the public acknowledgement that something ought to be done–but what did it all mean? Through renga, I hoped I might get a little closer to some kind of understanding
Our daily practice evolved as a kind of meta-narrative, a record of our pausings, when we made the time to observe and acknowledge the this-ness of a given moment within the multiplicity, or white hiss, of all the other moments, extending through space and time.
We ended our residency with a public renga writing party and shared a lovely afternoon with a group of intrepid poets, who composed the renga with us on large rolls of paper, tacked to the outside walls of the historic Phats Valley headquarters. The whole event is nicely documented here on Liz and Jamie’s blog. Thanks in particular should be given to the residency coordinators Ann Chen and Davey Field of the Nomadic Department of the Interior, who made our residency possible. The house, dating back to the American Revolution, has been in Davey’s family since the early 1960’s and staying there was truly a delight, though when I first walked in, about to spend the night in it alone, I could sense there was some kind of ghost or other (palpable though not visible) presence sharing my abode. As is my custom, I introduced myself to the empty yet somehow electrically charged air of one of the attic bedrooms, and from that point on a cosseting calmness descended and I was able to sleep most soundly. Ghosts very much need to be acknowledged I think, and might appreciate a certain degree of politeness. After all, who knows what it might be like for them having to put up with us clattering around like boors in the overlapping domains of our reality?
Be it the accumulated spirits of the deceased inhabitants or the drifts of plastic waste piling up on its beaches, Cape Cod is all about layers. It is a shifting palimpsest that appears to will itself into being; reconstituting itself out of the products of its own decomposition and perpetually reemerging as the new Cape, out of the shifting, drifting sediments of the old. With its vitality, agency and interconnectivity to the deep, swirling cycles of geology and weather, Cape Cod is truly a hyperobject.
In order to engage such an ephemeral subject at a given instant, we thought it helpful to embrace Thoreau’s concept of ‘incomplete learning,’ an experience akin to what one feels when starting a foreign language, when the sounds and meanings are not yet clear and still largely perceived as an undifferentiated continuum–with the inherent capacity to startle, yet without being subsumed into the banality of explicated meaning.
‘Not until we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves’
(Thoreau, Walden 171)
Jane Bennett makes reference to this non-judgemental, rather Zen-like practice of observation, in her 2002 ‘Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics in the Wild,’ where she builds a convincing case for his surprisingly post-modernist tendencies.
The Phats Valley house and its immediate environs exist as a kind of microcosm for the cycles of ebb and flow, erosion and sedimentation that so define the ‘Cape-ness’ of the Cape. The salt marsh is bisected by an artificial ithmus– the abandoned causeway of the Cape Cod railway, now the domain of sombre pitch pines and scraggly sumachs. In its rubble, I found anthropocenic mineraloids– fragments of slag, coke and brick constituting the geologic stratum of a once thriving Steam Age civilization that existed here during the 19th century. The quaint house, archetypical Americana, with its prim clapboard and gnarled, rustling trees, now seems a world away from the spectre of machinery. The long driveway floods during the higher tides, adding to the sense of splendid isolation.
Yet the view from the front door, which now looks out over an olive-coloured expanse of soughing cord grass and wheeling marsh birds, was once very different; the railway passed by just a few feet away, and I can imagine the chugging, clanging locomotives vibrating the windows of the parlour, backlighting the curtains with a roiling orange glow as they pulled their squealing train cars on into the magnetism of their destination.
That is all long gone now of course–another layer obscured by more recent sediment, continually accreting. The topmost strata is unmistakable in that it contains massive inclusions of discarded plastic, the most ubiquitous material of our age. In the relatively short time of its existence, plastic has spread throughout the biosphere, substantial parts of which, particularly in marine environments, can now legitimately be called the plastisphere, as organisms have already adapted to the problematic material by colonizing it and breaking it down into an even greater multiplicity of substances potentially harmful to man. Indeed, Plastics “R” Us!, as water-soluble plastic chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and flame retardants already circulate in all of our bloodstreams.
At Phats, the plastisphere is most visible in the zone of flotsam deposited at the high tide line. Plastic dominates this territory in a surprising variety of material expressions, creating an overall aesthetic experience that borders on the beautiful or the repulsive, depending on what frame of mind one is in. I include some photos of these happenstance assemblages at the start of this post.
Poking around those drifts of discarded polypropylene, polyethylene, styrene, vinyl, polycarbonate and nylon, I wondered what will form the stratum of the next geologic age? Will it be the ashes of human extinction that mark the dawn of the post-human, the way the K-T boundary delineates the quick and brutal end of the dinosaurs? Or will we be someday heralding the age of the neo-human, having somehow morphed into a species with greater sensitivity to the material realities of the planet on which we evolved.
Those of who call ourselves ‘environmentalists’ have a tendency to imagine a prelapsarian wilderness that once was pristine and then became progressively defiled and diminished through the carelessness of humankind. But the earth had been through many environmental catastrophes long before we came along– though this doesn’t exactly excuse us from our manifold sins. The infamous Chixculub asteroid impact suddenly ended the long reign of the dinosaurs and the more insidious yet equally catastrophic evolution of photosynthesis deep within the cells of certain cyanobacteria contaminated the earth’s early biosphere with oxygen– a fatal poison to the majority of organisms present at the time, resulting in what is now known as the oxygen catastrophe, a mass die-off of the earth’s biodiversity and a climate change event that froze the planet in the longest snowball earth episode in geologic history.
In a recent video, Žižek makes the perhaps startling case that there is considerable poetry in our present situation, that is to say, our disavowal, our state of knowing that something is true and yet acting as if it wasn’t. He argues that to “truly love the world, we must love its imperfections,” including, presumably, the ones for which we are directly responsible. “In trash,” he declares “is the true love of the world,” a sentiment similarly observed by a Zen priest in the masterful little documentary, Tokyo Waka, which explores the world of Tokyo’s ubiquitous and trash loving crows. To be more precise the priest observes: “In trash is the residue of desire,” a sentiment perhaps less direct but still elevating garbage to a kind of reified affection.
To follow that logic, when an entire landscape becomes trashed, it should be particularly worthy of our love and it was in this spirit that I embarked upon my summer explorations…
But first some background:The Superfund was originally set up in the America in 1980 to identify and facilitate the cleaning up of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. In theory this might have created sufficient funding and legislative willpower to deal with this dangerous and unhealthy problem but between partisan politics and bureaucratic ineptitude, implementation fell far short of what was needed.
Though most people would want steer clear of toxic wastelands, I wanted to see if there were any adaptive ecological processes operating there that might be transforming these zones of exclusion into useable habitats. I had the strong sense that conventional ecologists and environmentalists might be missing something very important, that nature was capable of doing an end run around our destruction, if only we would get out of the way. My summer safari took me to sites on both sides of the continent–Troy, NY and Portland, Oregon–and what I observed there gave me some hope and insight into nature’s surprising ability to colonize the messes we have left behind.
I was invited to Troy by my pal Kathy High for a collaborative investigation into the area’s extensive brownfields. Once known as the ‘collar city’ for its shirt, collar and textile production, Troy is considered the birthplace (and graveyard?) of the American industrial revolution. A fortuitous confluence of rivers made it possible for early factories to harness abundant mechanical (and eventually hydroelectric) power as well as to cheaply transport products and raw materials. Like so much of America’s industrial heartland, the area has suffered from economic decline and many of its once thrumming factories lie in ruin in within highly contaminated terrain.
Some of the worst sites are situated along the banks of the picturesque Hudson River, which transitions here from tidal to freshwater, the end of a long estuary. Downstream, all of the Hudson is classed as a Superfund site because of extensive contamination by PCBs, a potent carcinogen, dumped for decades by the General Electric Corporation as a byproduct of manufacturing transformers and other electrical components. PCB’s are a persistent organic pollutant (POP) that bioaccumulate in the river’s fish, making many species unsafe to eat–including the reputedly delicious striped bass that spawns nearby at the junction of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers.
chimney swifts over North Troy
Despite being a very degraded ecosystem Troy’s former industrial landsa are full of surprises. As part of a summer youth program, I led a ‘bio blitz’ of a community garden that had been established on a brownfield site near the Sanctuary for Independent Media. It wasn’t long before we found a magnificent stag beetle hiding in the rotting stump of an (invasive! exotic!) Ailanthus tree. High overhead, chimney swifts traced their invisible arabesques into the topaz air of the summer evening. This species, has long adapted to human presence and as indicated by its common name, makes its nests in disused chimneys. The chimney swift is a close relative of the Vaux’s swift, which puts up a spectacular display every evening as great clouds of the birds funnel into in a large chimney at the Chapman School in Portland, Oregon.
A local Troy resident told me she had recently found red-backed salamanders under debris in her backyard yard, situated quite near some of city’s most contaminated industrial sites, with nothing that might be deemed ‘intact’ woodland anywhere in the vicinity. With the sharp decline of amphibians worldwide, even in protected national parks, it might seem surprising to find them surviving in such anthropogenically disturbed habitats but this is consistent with findings in the UK where rare newts and other amphibians as well as lizards, slow-worms and grass snakes make their last stands in these unprepossessing environs, among the trash, eroding pavements and ruined buildings. In fact brownfields turn out to be far more suitable habitat for these delicate little creatures than is the intensively managed agricultural landscape that has obliterated large tracts of Europes’s biologically diverse ‘Kulturlandschaft’.
stag beetle in Ailanthus stump
At a Superfund site at the foot of Troy’s Ingalls Ave, I watched turkey vultures soar over an edenic looking mosaic of meadowy expanses that have cloaked the heavily contaminated soil. These neo-savannahs are punctuated by lush groves–a botanical mosh pit of weedy natives like box elder, black locust and cottonwood mixed in with exotic Ailanthus and Paulownia. All of this is gloriously unmanaged, left to its own rampancy, and though the species constituting this habitat are largely considered ‘invasive,’ they embody a new kind of ecological becoming, their novel juxtapositionings and processes of succession–a ‘Nature 2.0′ in the making.
If we put aside our purist bias, we might celebrate brownfields as territories of regeneration and marvel at how they adapt to the disturbances and wastes we leave in our wake. One might even regard them as ‘wilderness’ of a certain kind as they are one of the few ecological realms we have let slip from our control–leaving them free to reconfigure themselves and follow independent trajectories of neo-evolution.
Troy NY’s future brownfield rangers
The collapse of industry though, leaves more than just picturesque ruins and novel habitat in its wake. For human communities,‘Detroitization’ means decaying infrastructure, diminished economic opportunity and the adverse health effects of pervasive chemical contamination. If sufficiently de-toxified, these lands can be rehabilitated as perfectly reasonable urban nature parks (see my previous posting on Berlin’s Templehof airport) but the challenge is to do so without diminishing their often surprising biodiversity.
Troy might be an ideal location for a Brownfields National Park, where local youth could work as ‘brownfield rangers,’ leading tours of the area’s ecological and historical heritage as well as doing field studies and cataloging the species to be found there. Though this necessitates a change of perspective in what we North Americans typically think of as a ‘natural’ park experience, it is high time we open our minds to such opportunities. Brownfields are the future. Brownfields are us!
Over on the other side of the continent, I met up with artist Marina Zurkow in Portland, Oregon. Together, we led artistic incursions into a Superfund site on the edge of the Williamette River. We explored first by water, using a flotilla of kayaks peopled by an intrepid collection of individuals who responded to our call for participation in what (to the less adventurous) might have seemed an arcane enterprise. We conceived our expedition as a kind of group imagination exercise and christened it -“IF YOU SEE IT–BE IT!” in the spirit of the biosemiotician Jacob Von Uexküll, who did such groundbreaking research on the spatio-temporal worlds of animals, which he termed the ‘Umwelt.’ Aboard our tiny craft, we collectively tried to imagine/channel what it might have been like to navigate the contaminated and disturbed riparian environment from an animal’s point of view (water striders, otters, sturgeons, etc.) – inhabiting (in our mind’s eye) their biosemiotic state, ‘becoming’ them, as it were, in a collective thought exercise.
Marina’s long term plan is to construct a raft-like roving laboratory she calls the Floating Studio for Dark Ecology, on which artists and researchers ply the river, exploring its narratives of contamination and recovery as well as disseminating practices of contemplation and engagement between its human and non-human communities.
Our early evening voyage proved suitably anthropocenic: a bald eagle gliding through the shimmering cottonwoods of Ross Island–a section of river whose bed is being continually scoured by heavy gravel mining machinery–the blue tarp and scrap lumber bricolage of homeless encampments festooning the banks of the Williamette–the third world within the first world, the metabolic waste of neoliberal capitalism as it eats its way through our material reality.
Neo-ecologies of Williamette Cove
Once again there were fascinating and new ecological assemblage in these zones of dereliction and abandonment. Washed up on the industrial shore of a former shipyard–exquisite hydrozoans of a type I have never seen before:
The brownfields of the former factory site at Williamette Cove, though dangerously contaminated with heavy metals, wood preservatives and organic pollutants, proved not so ‘brown’ after all and were resplendent with novel botanical groupings–neo-succession! Native species like Arbutus menziesii (Madrone) formed habitat groupings with such hardy exotics as Paulownia tomentosa (princess or empress Tree) and Crataegus monogyna (European hawthorn). It is thought the empress trees made their original landfall in North America via their fluffy seeds, once used as a packing material for porcelain and other fragile goods originating in China and Japan. A gust of wind and an open crate at the dockside and their botanical colonization of the continent would have been begun.
In addition to brownfield neo-ecologies there is a parallel and equally fascinating neo-geology emerging from the material detritus of our age. Mineralogically, these are mostly composites and conglomerates or pyrolized residues of industrial processes such as coke and slag, as well as ceramics that have been fired into the form of brick, tile and pipe, much of it broken up into rubble. This so-called ‘urbanite’ is dominated by concrete and ferro-cement in various states of decay and petrochemically based asphalt and asphalt concrete, widely used in paving.
Sometimes though, a geologic object occurs that is of more obscure though still clearly anthropogenic provenance. At Williamette Cove, we came upon an exquisite specimen–a fossil of sorts–consisting of a fused mass of ribbed metal fragments, the armouring of industrial electrical cable, set within a matrix of a more indeterminate material, which might have been partially incinerated plastic. Perhaps this mystery mineral was formed when some itinerant metal collector tried to salvage copper wire by throwing scrounged cable into a campfire to melt off its rubber insulation and loosen the metal cladding. I may never discover this exquisite object’s true origin and it might well become the topic of frenzied conjecture to some future archeologist, wondering what our experience was like as we drifted deeper into the fraught and turbulent horizon of our anthropocenic future.
The morning broke grey and brooding outside the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and after a quick breakfast, we were on the trail, hiking up Saana Fjell, guided by Erich Berger of the Finnish Bioart Society. The idea was to familiarize ourselves with the geology, ecology and cultural history of the vicinity so we could dive into our research plans as soon as possible.
The Australian bio-hacker, Oron Catts had already been here for a week to do some scouting for his group’s ‘Journey to the Post-Anthropogenic’ project. They planned to perform a comprehensive bio-archeological survey of the crash site of a German Junkers 88 bomber that came down on Saana in 1942, which included a metagenomic analysis of the plane’s debris field and a recreation of the crash trajectory using a remote-controlled drone.
It wasn’t long before we passed the tree line where the mountain birches gave way to an expanse of open tundra sweeping out before us in a swath of russet heath and exposed rock, with quivering patches of silver cloud here and there snagged on the crenellations of the topography. As if on cue, a small herd of reindeer appeared over the crest of a nearby hill and galloped across our field of view, cocking their heads as they past us and then just as quickly melting into the gloom of the opposite horizon. It is hard to judge distances here in this cold desert. An unusual rock formation in the distance might be small and quite close by or enormous and very far away.
I felt for a moment as if I had been transported back to the Pleistocene, as the landscape I was looking at was what much of Europe and North America would have been like at the end of the last Ice Age, though (other than the reindeer) there wasn’t any of the charismatic megafauna such as the woolly mammoth and the cave lions I would have had to concern myself with back then. Semi-domesticated, reindeer have sustained the local Sami people since ancient times and they are of the few creatures (other than snails) to manufacture the enzyme lichenase, enabling them to survive on lichen during the winter months.
How this delicate ecological balance will be affected by climate change is unclear but to my mind it doesn’t look good. Lichens exist in fairly specific temperature and humidity conditions and in Kilpisjärvi many are symbiotic with the birch trees, themselves a cold-dependent species. A continued warming trend in this region is bound to mean diminishment of suitable reindeer habitat. This has already occurred in North America, where the closely related Woodland Caribou has steadily disappeared from the southern portions of its range.
Standing in the middle of this iconic subarctic landscape, it is hard to imagine rapid changes occurring. For thousands of years, the processes shaping it have been gradual and incremental – the slow scouring of glaciers advancing and retreating, the infiltration of frost with its insidious heaving and splitting, the seasonal flows of meltwater into the lakes and rivers. The cold accentuates the sense of Deep Time here. Rocks dragged by ancient ice flows sit solemnly in place as if they stopped moving only yesterday. The sparse, slow growing vegetation is no match for the overwhelmingly geologic feeling of the place. Even minor disturbances stay visible for centuries.
But add even a small degree of warming and there would be potentially huge changes. Vegetative growth would ramp up, allowing trees to flourish in areas that were once windswept barrens. It is easy to imagine the slopes of Saana darkening as the Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris), now found only intermittently in the Kilpisjärvi area but quite common further south, finds conditions more suitable to it and becomes a dominant species. True tundra and the flora and fauna that depend on it could disappear from the area entirely.
lone Scots pine
Fast-forward a little further and there could be a whole host of new species that find the once frigid environs of Kilpisjärvi newly tolerable. A good many of these are likely to be weeds, which thrive on man-made disturbance. Investigating the grounds around the research station, I soon found a small clump of English plantain (Plantago major) a cosmopolitan weed, dubbed the ‘white man’s footprint’ by North American First Nations, who noticed it growing wherever European colonizers had disturbed the original ecosystem. The humble plantain is just the beginning. I predict that larger weed species will soon be gaining a foothold at Kilpisjärvi; their seeds imported on tire treads or blown in with the wind.
I wondered how it might look here when Ailanthus altissima, a tree variously known as the ‘Ghetto Palm’ or ‘Tree of Heaven,’ moves into the Finnish subarctic. Originally from China, Ailanthus is exuberantly invasive, and has already moved into ruderal (ruin) ecologies throughout the world without any signs of stopping. This tree has the astounding ability to feed off concrete, allowing it to thrive in cracks in pavement, the roofs and facades of under-maintained buildings and pretty much any other place its myriad seeds are able to lodge themselves long enough to germinate.
As the global south becomes uninhabitable due to increasing drought, wildfire and relentless heat, it isn’t hard to imagine a newly temperate Kilpisjärvi becoming a major magnet for climate refugees, human and non-human. Higher annual temperatures, as well as attracting different flora and fauna, could make the cultivation of cereal crops a possibility and perhaps other kinds of intensive agriculture, now more characteristic of Central Europe. This could transform the wild, transhumance landscape into a ‘Kulturlandschaft,’ the subarctic wilderness giving way to ploughed fields, perhaps even orchards. There might be a property boom as the open range lands once suitable only for reindeer husbandry become hosts to cash crops and housing estates. The effect on the traditional Sami lifestyle would be incalculable.
A climate-changed Kilpisjärvi would be a kind of ‘hyperecology’– a co-mingling of adaptive, cosmopolitan weeds, perhaps a few resilient local organisms and a steady in-migration of biota from the south. Outside the national parks and reserves, post-climate change nature will have even less of a free hand. There is massive industrial development afoot for Lapland, particularly mining and its ancillary industries which threaten to blight vast tracts of the relatively pristine landscape with open pit mines, tailings ponds and processing infrastructure, which, as well as inevitably introducing all sorts of pollution will create a new terrain vagueof slag heaps and factory wastelands. These ‘brownfields,’ ubiquitous in much of the industrialized world are the preferred habitats of the globally distributed ragamuffin flora: Ailanthus, Buddlea and Robinia, which find the toxic and impoverished soils to their liking.
Industrialized, intensely cultivated and densely populated, the Kilpisjärvi of the not-to-distant future might look strangely familiar to any present day resident of a more temperate latitude. Yet what has been predictable there for so long will soon become much more extreme. We may all find ourselves moving north.
But climate change isn’t likely to stop at this arbitrary point. The heat will likely continue to build, especially if mankind continues dumping carbon into the atmosphere and particularly if the much feared ‘runaway greenhouse’ effect kicks in. What then for Kilpisjärvi? The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum that happened some 55 million years ago gives us a clue. In those days, the weather north of the Arctic circle was sultry and humid the year round. In addition to the Sciadopitys trees I described in my previous posting, vast swamp forests of Metasequoia and Taxodium spread out across the far north of Eurasia and North America, with turtles and crocodiles plying through the black water and mire. It would have resembled the bayou country of Louisiana or subtropical China, with snow and ice pretty much non-existent, a far cry from the frigid Kilpisjärvi of today, which can be icebound 200 days a year.
Northern regions are well on track for a repeat of these subtropical conditions according to the most agreed upon climate change models, which predict an up to 4 degree Celsius rise globally by the end of the century, with a strong likelihood that changes in high latitudes will be more extreme. Though the biota will surely be more impoverished than it was in the Eocene, not having had anywhere near as much time to evolve, an anthropogenically tropical Lapland would be a mind-boggling yet disturbingly real possibility.
Though our species’ effect on climate can (and will) precipitate far-reaching changes in areas like Kilpisjärvi, there are many planetary processes playing out over which we have no control. The evolution of biota over Deep Time is as much happenstance as forward movement, with periods of great flourishing such as the infamous ‘Cambrian Explosion’ interspersed with ‘reversal’ or mass extinction, either organically or extraterrestrially engendered, which often obliterate whole classes of once dominant organisms and provide opportunities for minor ones to come out of the wings.
Past instigators of mass extinction have included: asteroid impacts, widespread volcanic eruptions with concomitant ocean acidification, even the evolution of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria, which released the toxic gas oxygen into the atmosphere to the detriment of the once dominant anaerobes. Any and all of these scenarios will likely play out again somewhere in the fullness of Deep Time, but barring the elimination of all life on the planet, it is worth speculating on the impact such upheavals would have on the vegetated landscape.
For example, what would happen if flowering plants, also known as angiosperms, dramatically declined, perhaps taken out by some pandemic or selective evolutionary pressure? They’ve really only been common since the Cretaceous and it isn’t hard to imagine Kilpisjärvi’s abundant so-called ‘lower’ plants – mosses, club mosses and liverworts, moving into the vacuum and attaining gigantic proportions, as was the case during in the coal swamps of the Carboniferous Period.
Neo-Kilpisjärvi with giant club mosses
A reduction in the availability of sunlight due to volcanic ash or widespread dust storms could have equally bizarre consequences. With green plants and algea in decline because of the challenge to photosynthesis, there would be a selective advantage for fungi, which might take over Kilpisjärvi forming bizarre, colossal structures as they did during the Devonian Period, some 400 million years ago, and again during the mayhem of the Permian mass extinction. Whether our own species would survive under such extreme and alien conditions is an open question, but life of some sort is almost certain to find a way. Perhaps fungi will regroup to form the planet’s supreme intelligence. Some would say, they already have!
It is this last point that gives me a vestige of hope. We Homo sapiens are a problematic creature, a classic, invasive species that thrives on disturbance, tends toward monoculture and displaces competing biota from its habitat. Yet in the overall scheme of things we are likely to be a transient phenomenon. We will either precipitate our own extinction, (and if the surviving ecosystems of the planet could sigh in relief, they surely would!), or we will find a way to live within our ecological means and develop a more equitable arrangement with the fellow denizens of the biosphere. My stay at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station offered me the ideal vantage point to consider this conundrum. What we are in now is not so much of a ‘watershed’ moment but more of a ‘timeshed’ moment!
In many ways the bleak solitude of Kilpisjärvi proved the perfect vantage point from which to delve into ‘Deep Futures,’ both due to the majestic, timeless feeling of the landscape but also the unique vulnerability of the fragile ecosystem, which like others at high latitudes is likely to suffer disproportionately from the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
Perhaps biting off more than I could chew, I tasked myself with compiling what I called a ‘Speculative Botany’ for the future of subarctic Finland, based on what is there now and what is likely to happen in both the near and the long term.
The effects of global warming on arctic and subarctic ecosystems are already proceeding apace and in addition to the well known images of abject polar bears stranded on rapidly melting ice flows, there have been many other effects on northern biota. Here in North America, more southerly species such as robins (Turdus migratorius) and Pacific salmon are colonizing high arctic latitudes. A little to the south, vast tracts of Rocky Mountain forest are turning brown under an unprecedented onslaught of pine beetles, whose numbers are no longer kept in check due to milder winters and hotter summers.
So what about ‘Deep Futures?’
Environmental conditions are changing so rapidly that I frequently get the feeling I have already woken up Rip Van Winkle style in some deep future, where the things I have long taken for granted are no longer recognizable. Like the frogs that used to teem in the ditches of my suburban Toronto childhood. They are now disappearing worldwide, their once exuberant choruses silenced by a strange new fungal pandemic. The Western black rhino has just gone extinct – all of them. Gone. Wiped off the earth by relentless poaching. Neither you nor I nor anybody else will ever have a chance to see one. We blew it. And countless other species are on the brink of the same fate.
Climatologically, the obvious effects of anthropogenic warming are now everywhere and we are seeing weather events that are routinely more extreme than anything experienced in the recent past, though they have long been in our collective imagination. Reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian 1960’s fantasies – ‘The Drowned World’ and ‘The Wind from Nowhere’ we now live in a world where ‘superstorms,’ extreme flooding and the disappearance of Arctic sea ice are the new normal
With the scientific consensus emerging that global temperatures will continue to rise by at least 4 degrees C by the end of the century, I wondered what might happen at Kilpisjärvi, which presently finds itself in a delicate mountain birch forest ecosystem, where normally the snow doesn’t melt until June. Already it is clear that with less severe winters, plant productivity and abundance in many far northern areas has significantly increased.
What novel re-groupings, permutations and combinations might occur as the climate of Kilpisjärvi warms up? Will the existing plants grow more rampantly or will they begin to find the new conditions intolerable and fade from the landscape? There are some basic principles I thought I could extrapolate from. For example, rapid climate change is likely to favour generalists, often weed species, capable of riding out a wide variety of conditions and quickly colonizing disturbed habitats. Cold-loving, habitat specific specialists will have a much more difficult time and would disappear from many of their more southern haunts.
the future of arctic fauna?
How long might it take for major changes in the biota to occur? There are so many things to consider. For example, birds can colonize newly habitats quickly, which in turn will be a vector for certain plants whose seeds travel long distances inside their digestive tracts to be deposited on new terrains. Wind borne seeds and spores are likewise rapidly distributed. We humans are perhaps the greatest agents for the dispersal of species, transporting them deliberately or by accident, through the shipment of goods, gardening and even on the soles of our shoes. The deeper the future, the more daunting the range of possibilities, so I thought it reasonable to start with the situation in Kilpisjärvi at the present day and project onward into deeper and deeper horizons of time, with a corresponding decrease in certainty.
I am an artist, not a scientist, so I knew my speculations would be more qualitative than quantitative, but I figured it was worth trying to extrapolate obvious trends and imagine how they might unfold in both the near and long term.
A few hours after first touching down in Helsinki and pleasantly catatonic from the jet lag, I took a long walk through the venerable Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden. It is a habit of mine to visit the botanical garden of any city that is new to me and I was curious to see what the Finns managed to cultivate at such a high northern latitude. And I wanted to establish some sort of a baseline for what would typically constitute northern flora. Admittedly Helsinki is a good deal further south than Kilpisjärvi but is nevertheless considered the world’s most northerly metropolitan area and I reckoned the climate of Kilpisjärvi would begin to drift toward that of present day Helsinki as the planet continues to warm. Established in the early 1800’s Kaisaniemi has the agreeable and lush historicity of an old, lovingly maintained park, a world within itself of specimen groves and steamy glasshouses, where the casual stroller or the committed anomophile can each commune with the diverse array of the botanically possible.
From the very beginning gardeners have always pushed the envelope of what can be cultivated in a given climatic zone and Kaianiemi is no exception. For example there is an enormous walnut (Juglans regia) tree, sprawling and laden with nuts far to the north of its usual more temperate haunts. I was delighted to see one of my favourite living fossils, the monotypic Sciadopitys verticella, commonly referred to as the Japanese umbrella pine, as it is now only native to a small area of Japan. Yet during the Eocene Thermal Maximum 50 million years ago there were whole forests of these trees in the vicinity of what is now Finland and the resin they produced was so ubiquitous it makes up the bulk of the area’s famous Baltic amber. During that long ago time, the average temperatures on the earth were extemely high, as high, in fact, as it is expected to rise again within this next century, due to man-made global warming. Could it be that Sciadopitys might one day hop Kaianiemi’s garden fence and make itself at home again in the forests around a newly tepid Baltic? I wonder…
In contrast to how compact everything generally seems to a North American traveling through Europe, the distances in Finland are quite vast. The day after arriving in Helsinki, I was en route on the seven hour trek to Kilpisjärvi, which began with a one hour flight north to Rovaniemi,‘the hometown of Santa’ and the capital of Lapland (not necessarily in that order), followed by a six hour bus ride on a two lane highway to almost the 70th parallel. As the scenery passed by and the tires hummed and the vegetation grew more sparse, we were able to acquainted with each other and start thinking about how we might address a topic as vast as ‘Deep Time.’
On a more prosaic note: I loved the bizarre and über-Nordic aesthetic of the coffee-shops in roadside Lapland, a few of which we were able to sample on the bus ride to and from Kipisjärvi. Amazingly, there is a pension for Thai food up here. Their secret ingredient – reindeer meat! And by the way, the wood carvers are definitely on drugs – perhaps some taiga version of the magic mushroom… Check out the whacky wooden dwarfs that are the regional specialty. The carving style out-Seusses Doctor Seuss! Oh those long winters! I think I understand the flying reindeer now…
An hour or so from our destination, and the landscape morphed into a vast, misty expanse of exposed rock, russet heath lands and dwarf birches, their branches stripped of all but a few remaining yellow leaves despite it being only mid September – still, as far as the calendar is concerned – summer! When we finally pulled into the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station it was almost dark. The air had a thin, alpine quality about it and the massive silhouette of the Saana fjell loomed over us like some giant recumbent beast. We were told we’d be climbing it the next day and we collapsed into our beds…
The British Museum is astonishing, housing some of humanity’s most culturally significant objects, more than a few of which found their way there under what one might now call dubious circumstances.
Either through the machinations of a once vast and pervasive empire or more directly through the spoils of war, precious objects converged here in unprecedented quantity, particularly during the 19th century. The Rosetta Stone is a case in point. A dark, dull slab of a thing, it is the museum’s most visited object, not because it is particularly beautiful but because the text inscribed into it was written in three languages – Ancient Egyptian, Demotic and Ancient Greek, which gave scholars a key to decoding the vast compendium of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which they had been badly mistranslated since at least the fifth century. It was re-discovered in Egypt by the French in 1799 but then wrested away to Britain, along with other antiquities, as part of the French Capitulation of Alexandria a few years later.
The museum’s acquisition of the so called Parthenon or ‘Elgin’ Marbles, (depending on what side of the fence you are on as to their rightful ownership), has been a source of controversy since their arrival during the first decade of the nineteenth century. They were brought to London by Lord Thomas Elgin, who had them pried from the Parthenon, while Athens was under occupation by the Ottoman Empire, who allegedly issued a permit to him, though this still can’t be entirely corroborated. Lord Elgin, who was there originally there simply to document the Marbles and take plaster casts of them claimed he had to act to save the works from destruction as some sculptures nearby were said to have been burned into lime for construction. In the end, despite shipwrecks, massive personal expense and the initial failure of negotiations with the British Museum to pay for them, the Marbles ended up where they are now and the Greeks have been trying to get them back ever since.
And it is no wonder.
The Marbles are utterly magnificent. Despite their great age (dating from circa 447 – 438 BCE) and the many bits that have fallen off over the intervening millenia, they seem somehow to have transcended both time and material. The British Museum is chock-a-block full of some of the finest examples of stone sculpture mankind has ever produced, yet the Marbles, particularly the figures of the three goddesses from the East Pediment, are in a class by themselves. Their clothing seems to float over the bodies, each muscle, nipple and fold of flesh looking like it might suddenly shift beneath diaphanous cloth that alternately clings and billows in a way that is uncannily and rapturously alive. One has to remind oneself one is looking at cold, hard stone. The dissonance between the obvious materiality and the skill of the artifice creates something truly transcendent.
Despite the endless evil our species has promulgated, the existence of such objects gives me hope. Being in the presence of them, if only for a short while, is a privilege that should be available to all. It is to the credit of the British Museum (and many of the other major London institutions) that they open their doors free of charge. This is something that has always irked me about many museums in North America, particularly those of my native Canada where the collections tend to be pretty mediocre to begin with. To put humanity’s cultural heritage behind a pay-wall entrenches a kind of petty elitism that distances us from the hope and inspiration that cost-free access makes possible. With their focus on admission receipts, too many of our North American museums have slid into the shrill, overly mediated territory of theme park(ism) and ‘edutainment,’ robbing visitors of the simple pleasure of enjoying objects of beauty, antiquity or scientific interest and experiencing them on their own terms.
It’s the last day before the NYU students’ Christmas break and the streets of the East Village are full of drunken Santas and inebriated elves vomiting, fighting and staggering into traffic. For some reason this makes me very happy – a debauched anti-Christmas that serves to de-alienate me from the saccharine strains of seasonal Muzak and ersatz bonhomie that are so hard to get away from at this time of year. In keeping with the looming end of the Mayan calendar, a young hipster is getting his picture taken next to the Meso-American themed ‘portal’ he has pasted onto the old bank building on the corner, complete with the now obligatory QR code to link our smartphones to his on-line brand. And he is looking mighty pleased with himself. Sadly, the real Armageddon turns out to be a much slower, more painful, affair, which we’ll have to spend many more years enduring, despite all the prophesying and anticipatory hippie dancing down there in the Yucatan. A day after the anticipated end of the world, the ‘portal’ is already peeling- its wheat paste no match for the dampness of the winter weather.
So where does that leave us?
Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, providing an object lesson in the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to climate change. I was at a panel discussion at NYU, itself having suffered over 1 billion dollars in damage, and heard how the emergency generators failed at several major hospitals necessitating massive evacuations of patients, many of them critically ill, from the suddenly elevator-less buildings.
Though there was a sense of where the flood waters would impact, it was the social dimensions of the disaster that had been poorly prepared for. According to Kizzy Charles-Gusman (a recent environmental policy adviser to Mayor Bloomberg), Sandy had a disproportionate impact on the elderly, people of color and low-wage workers, who predominantly inhabit the city’s flood-prone public housing complexes of which 402 buildings lost power, water and heat for extended periods of time, which resulted in an epidemic of cold-related illnesses such as hypothermia and respiratory infections, as well as cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in people trying to rig up impromptu heating arrangements with insufficient ventilation. Chronic conditions got dangerously exacerbated in many of the low-income residents who depended on itinerant home care workers, whose visits the storm interrupted. The take-home message was that it was neighbors knocking on doors who provided the best line of defense during the sometimes considerable time spent waiting until the disaster relief agencies could deploy their resources. Climate change, increasingly means we have to get better at taking care of each other, particularly the elderly and the house-bound.
Landscape ecologist and director of the Manahatta/Welikia Projects, Eric Sanderson, suggested ecological solutions to make the New York waterfront more resilient to the effects of climate change, chiefly re-restoring the now largely vestigial salt marshes and oyster reefs that once ringed Manhattan Island, which can soften the impact of storm surges in a self-adjusting, literally rhizomatic way. After a disturbance, the various species of cord grass (eg. Spartina alternifolia and Spartina patens) can redistribute themselves based on their different tolerances for submergence and salinity, forming a self-healing structure that shields the shore behind it. Sanderson pointed out a direct congruence between Manhattan’s mandatory flood evacuation zones and the location of long vanished wetlands, where not surprisingly, the water still collects. As usual, nature knows best and we ignore that at our peril.
Perhaps we can be forgiven for wanting to give things a tweak from time to time though. For better or worse, it is in our species’ nature. Genetic engineering is a case in point. It is controversial, yes, and fraught with danger, not the least of which is the threat posed by big biotech companies patenting the living shit out of everything, recombining what is essentially the earth’s genetic commons and declaring it their intellectual property. The technology to re-splice genes has been around for a good while now and the genie can’t easily be put back in the bottle. So given what’s at stake – and there is a lot at stake – why let big corporations dictate all the terms? There is a small but growing movement of bio-hackers who dedicate themselves to promoting an open-source, democratized biotech. They are educating and empowering ordinary citizens with the tools they need to counteract the hegemonic, capitalistic tendencies of the industry and encourage creative investigations into bio-tech that may not be explicitly utilitarian or commercial, but artistic or otherwise conjectural.
The folks at GENSPACE epitomize this emerging aesthetic and in their funky Brooklyn biolab they offer workshops in isolating, amplifying and re-combining DNA to artists, high school students and just about anyone else curious and patient enough to learn some basic molecular biology and acquire lab skills. By promoting this kind of literacy, GENSPACE includes whole new communities in a practice once relegated to the cloistered labs of the academy and the corporate sector and in so doing democratizes the discourse around this controversial yet epochally significant technological evolution. Though I personally have grave concerns about the release of novel genetic material into the biosphere, the likes of Monsanto have already made that decision for us and we now live in a world where transgenic pollen billows through our air and super weeds erupt between rows of genetically engineered crops, whether we like it or not.
Yet on the other hand, under the guidance of GENSPACE’s Ellen Jorgensen, I was quickly able to learn some basic techniques and sequenced a portion of my DNA, which when analyzed yielded some interesting results:
I carry, through my long chain of ancestral mothers, the H1a3 maternal haplogroup, which originated in the Younger Dryas Cycle – a cold snap occurring between 12,900 and 11,500 years ago that interrupted the general warming trend near the end of the Ice Age. Which means (not surprisingly) that my genetics are deeply and anciently European. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. (Sorry!) If I had run a more comprehensive analysis, (or sent a sample of my spit to some commercial personal genomic testing company, like 23andMe) I could uncover a wealth of nuanced, highly individual information, including my probability of contracting various genetically determined diseases, susceptibility to allergies, candidacy for certain medications and even how much of my DNA has been contributed by Neanderthals.
Clearly this might be useful, not to mention interesting… If I knew I had the genetic proclivity toward diabetes or heart disease, I might keep a closer eye on my diet or even start taking preventative medicines. Yet the larger motivation for me to start learning about genomics is one of basic literacy. As biotech becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it will be imperative for an engaged citizenry to have a basic grasp of its underlying principles, so we can at least filter the signal from the noise at both the Luddite end of the environmental movement and the slick, self-serving communiques of a multi-billion dollar industry.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, genetic processes prove to be an immensely design tool, even outside the test tube. An entire technology of computation has evolved using genetic algorithms, basically simulations that create powerful synthetic evolution machines that can be deployed to solve complex computational problems. I attended a fascinating lecture given at EYEBEAM by the Deluezeian scholar Manuel deLanda, who explained how genetic replication algorithms can be applied to architectural design. For example, the biological principle of heterogeneity occurs when populations of organisms reproduce sexually and shuffle the genetic deck to create occasionally novel outcomes that sometimes confer adaptive advantages to offspring. This principle can be incorporated into form-finding programs such as those that generate solutions to structural problems. These organic algorithms have the benefit of coming up with answers designers didn’t even they were looking for, in as much as they may have been shielded by educational or cultural predispositions. The algorithms can also be set to evolve in the manner of a neural net, interacting with the designer as in: ‘do you like this?’ to refine outcomes iteratively.
Artificial life when it is left to evolve can be quite uncanny, yet when it does, as in this vintage Karl Sims project from the 90’s, one can clearly see that there are some universal principles at work. These simulated beings can evolve and even reproduce but will we ever get to the point where we need to give them rights?
Though I was headed back to New York, Hurricane Sandy had other ideas and I got stuck in my hometown of Toronto for a few days, waiting for NYC’s airports to reopen. I have to say it was refreshing to hear a Jamaican guy outside the Lansdowne subway station cursing at random passersby, calling them ‘bloodclots’ as they rushed for the bus. Life on the West Coast is just so insufferably white bread and I miss these idiomatic Caribbean speech patterns, not to mention the great goat and okra rotis I tucked into at Vena’s – the local hole-in-the-wall Trinidadian place. Don’t even get me started about the West Coast’s lack of subways….
I had come to Ontario in the first place to attend a thirty-two year reunion of my long dead punk band ‘The Enemas’ (wince, wince) which happened in the smallish rust belt city of London. Though my own memories of 1979-81 were a bit on the sketchy side, my former band mates managed to play through our set with astonishing verve. Though I am less than sure of my musical talent these days, it was heartening to share memories of those early punk days with former demimondaines and be introduced to a whole new generation of aficionados who weren’t even born when we last played. More than anything, it is the punk rock aesthetic that has stuck with me all of these years – a sense of anti-authoritarian glee and the joy of improvisation; of not doing things by the book. For that sense of empowerment, I am eternally grateful.
Frida Kahlo’s portrait of Luther Burbank
Back in Toronto after the London event, my hurricane-induced hiatus allowed me to reacquaint myself with old Hog town, the city that essentially molded me as a young artist and writer. As well as viewing a lovely exhibition at the AGO, (curated by my old friend Dot Tuer) of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, I swanned about some of the neighbourhoods I used to frequent and I couldn’t help noticing, (as I sometimes do after absences from once familiar places) that the remnants of my physical past – the buildings, the faces I once knew – have receded strangely into an aggregated matrix of history, obscuring what was once there – what is still in my mind – like a translucent veil or an alternate quantum state that oscillates in and out of the present like the cronosthesia suffered by Chris Marker’s protagonist in La Jetée. One of the few consolations to getting older I find, is that this ability, in one’s mind’s eye, to zoom in and out through one’s own history becomes astonishingly acute. The present more and more resembles the skin of some translucent, temporal onion, containing the nested layers of the past still glistening inside it, each existing as it once was, but within the corpus of a unified whole.
And that goes for the future too because as Baudrillard pointed out, the unimaginable has always been imagined to some extent. Which brings me to New York. Finally! After days of hurricane Sandy induced flight cancellations, the flooding had receded from the airport runways enough that I was able to board a plane for the short flight. Upon arrival at La Guardia, at first everything seemed more or less normal, but as the taxi crossed the Williamsburg bridge into the Loisaida it was as if I had entered a parallel, crepuscular universe. Though it was already early evening, there was no electric light to be seen anywhere and it felt as if I had traveled backward in time to some earlier, pre-electrical Manhattan. Traffic signals and street lights were all out and the windows of the storefronts and apartment buildings stared darkly into the shadowy streets. Knots of people sauntered along the sidewalks, at much slower than the usual frenetic Manhattan pace, and here and there as a diminished reminder of the historical present, a tiny cell phone screen glowed from the darkness, borne by unseen hands in search of what had become almost a memory of formerly ubiquitous reception.
Alphabet City in the blackout
punk phone charging setup at 9th and C
As night fell further, I could see the darkness would absolute, save for vehicle headlights, a few wavering flashlights and the twinkle of candles in the windows of the occasional bar that stayed open, catering to the many in the neighbourhood who suddenly didn’t have much to do, except shiver in their cold, dark apartments. Being the nexus of entrepreneurialism that New York is, there were itinerant ice men driving around (where do they come from so suddenly?) hawking their now highly coveted wares to whomever would agree to their exorbitant prices.
“Ice – Ten dollars a bag!”
But cold beer is a welcome distraction from any disaster and I soon found myself atop a bar stool, enjoying a Pabst Blue Ribbon around the glow of a tiny tea candle in the otherwise Stygian darkness of Avenue B at 7th Street, joined by a friend from our building and a professional pet sitter named Nanette who drank her gin and tonic with a snuffling pug named Olive, perched on her lap like a furry, drooling accordion.
The next morning, the power was still out but I could see that the urban immune system had kicked in. While the ConEd trucks and National Guard vehicles went about their business, the punks at 9th and C have had barbecues going in front of their building and were attending to the many hungry people in the neighbourhood who had been having to make do without light, heat and in many cases water for these three days. The corner was one of the only localities in the neighbourhood in which get a cell-phone signal so it was full of people milling around with their handsets pressed to their ears or frantically texting. To my delight, the punks had provided a pedal-powered cell phone charger next to their outdoor kitchen, helping us all to maintain our tenuous links to the outside world.
I’m so glad to report that at 9th and C at least, the punk spirit is alive and well and maybe it’s stronger now than ever. As climate change continues to heave and buckle the aging infrastructure of American capitalism, it is these anti-authoritarian ragamuffins who will increasingly be called upon to step up and save us. Welcome to the future. I think I like it!
Update: Though the power came on Friday night for many buildings here in Alphabet City, things are still very much sucking for the folks in the nearby PJs, many of whom live along the East River where the worst flooding happened. Along with the lack of light and heat, these unfortunates had to endure the exceptional torment of not having running water. To me, this was yet another object lesson on how, within the context of climate change and the general lack of readiness of North America’s tax-starved, aging infrastructure, it will be the poor who will disproportionately bear the brunt of what is coming. Tuesday’s coming election here can be seen as a referendum on how America views its social contract. Will the state make some committment to its historical responsibility to look after those less fortunate, or will be headed for a more brutal, individualist future? No matter what the outcome, I think we’ll be needing the spirited, do-it-yourself public service of those punk kids more and more.
An island sixteen miles long, solid-founded, numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies…
(Walt Whitman – Mannahatta)
New York City, no matter how often one visits, never ceases to astonish. There is something hyperbolic about it, a daily tyranny of choice that ceaselessly inflicts itself upon the limits of one’s time and energy. At times it feels like a giant, hissing concrete lung; its people and vehicles seething around like blood corpuscles, clotting together and erupting again into vast, bubbling streams. I’ve fallen in and out of love with the place many times; sometimes even on the same day; at once oppressed and elated by it, my mind hovering in a tension of opposites, among the American buildings, American streets, beneath the American sky. I’m always struck by the absence of coniferous trees here, save for the living fossil gingkos, which everywhere line the avenues, the sour stench of their prehistoric fruits wafting up from rain-glistened pavement. Sharing the streets are legions of Gleditsias and Chinese Scholar trees, rattling their naked branches against the filigreed backdrop of overhead wires and converging contrails, all glowing orange in the soft winter sun.
ginkgo fruits - ripe and rank!
Art is the main reason I’m here. In contrast to what it is on offer in New York, Canadian art institutions seem perpetually measly. Yet it was ever thus. Even the biggest of Canadian burgs seems like a Siberian outpost compared to Manhattan’s great ship of skyscrapers looming on the Hudson. Canada isn’t exactly rife with New York’s hyper-kinetic energy either. At crosswalks, we stolidly wait for the traffic lights to change before mincing cautiously out into the intersection, we dutifully sanitize our hands at every public opportunity, and bottle up our just Canadian outrage until we have time to write a snippy letter to the Globe and Mail. I love my country but holy crap can it be boring! Well at least we don’t have to worry about being overstimulated. But back to ART… Because (in New York) you can take the existence of art for granted, it is possible to engage with work here that pushes the envelope of what art *is*. This is the liminal l ‘m most interested in and during my latest trip there, I was richly rewarded.
Take for example the work of Trevor Paglen on show as part of the New Museum’s Free exhibition. Paglen does amazing work documenting the so called ‘black’ world of military surveillance technology, which is deployed all around us but isn’t meant to be noticed, unless like Paglen and the amateur astronomy geeks he hangs out with, you know where to look. A couple of his photographs are described this way:
In They Watch the Moon, 2010, Paglen captures a surveillance station run by the NSA and the Navy in a part of West Virginia known as the US National Radio Quiet Zone, in which no electromagnetic radiation is permitted. While officially this is to prevent interference with the nearby Green Bank Observatory, it also services this radio telescope spying station, which was originally constructed to pick up telephone and other radio signals on the other side of the planet as they are transmitted out into space and bounce off of the moon. Paglen captures the site at night, glowing under the light of a full moon.
In Dead Military Satellite (DMSP 5D-F11) Near the Disk of the Moon (2010), Paglen captures a dead military satellite as it is about to cross the disk of the moon. In PAN (Unknown; USA-207), an array of stars is made visible using time-lapse photography as they streak across the night sky. Looking closer toward the center of the image there is a cluster of stationary dots that do not move along with the other stars. These are communications satellites that have been positioned in a narrow ring of orbit called the Clarke Belt, in which objects move at the exact speed of the earth‘s rotation and thus appear stationary above a particular global point. While these satellites are used for all kinds of communication, both commercial and military, the second dot from the left of the central cluster is a secret, unregistered satellite known as Pan, or Palladium at Night, hovering above Somalia and the Middle East. The image was captured in South Africa with the aid of amateur astronomers.
The set of essays written to accompany Free provides some fresh analysis on the redefinition of public space emerging from the seething foment of networked communication in which we now live. The internet bathes us in information while at the same time acting as a receptacle for our thoughts, combining and recombining our utterances with those of others in strange new configurations that are then fed back to us. This twitchy interplay is the core concept of Free. Its curatorial hand never gets too didactic; instead we are given an engaging snapshot of the constantly changing informational landscape, which artists are simultaneously responding to and creating.
Charles Le Dray whose has a vast show at the Whitney, doesn’t challenge the nature of how we communicate with each other per se but rather how we connect to the objects in our everyday life. Le Dray, a master tailor, has packed several galleries with tiny outfits of clothing; exquisitely sewn, midget versions of what one might find hanging in any dry cleaning store, complete en masse with tiny wire coat hangers with even the little paper sleeves on them that say: “We ♥ our customers!” The combined effect is that of stumbling into an abandoned Lilliput; “Who were these tiny people?” and “Where did they all go?” Le Dray re-imagines clothing even further, fashioning what one might call ‘meta-clothing’ from human-sized jackets with swarms of tinier outfits erupting from the lining like budding hydras or the parthenogenetic aphids, who carry their own daughters and granddaughters inside them like nested Russian dolls. Or perhaps LeDray conceived this piece as a kind of parasitism, the little outfits fattening themselves on the nutritious fabrics of their larger sartorial cousins. In any case, it feels very biological. There is something enchanting about the fastidiousness and quality of obsessive iteration that Le Dray employs and he achieves this with the other materials he uses well, such as the tiny pottery vessels he has arranged in serried ranks in glass display cases and a set of astonishingly detailed, miniature models he has carved from human bone; a stalk of wheat, a cobbler’s bench and an orrery complete with miniscule planets arranged on hair thick shafts around a tiny ersatz sun.
Yoshitomo Nara, (whose work was at Asia Society) exists in another kind of feedback loop with the pop culture he simultaneously fetishizes and also influences. Nara is one of the leading proponents of the kowa kawaii (creepy cute) aesthetic that has been spilling out of Japan over the past years. His images of switch-blade wielding, big-headed children recall the demented revenge fantasies of a bullied middle schooler and their flatness and deft, dashed-offedness give them a curiously intense power. Heavily influenced by rock and roll, Nara’s work hangs in the uncanny balance between fan boy geek-itude and anarchic catabolism, creating and destroying itself in equal measure, never getting too ‘high-concept’ or big for its britches. The Japanese have coined yet another useful word for this type of delightful in-betweenness – heta-uma, which means ‘bad-good.’
With its hordes of pasty-faced tourists, MoMA these days can feel like being in a Disney theme park but the work on show there is always the best of the best. I was happy to commune again with the the work of one of my favorite, genre-defying artists – the late, great Gordon Matta-Clark, whose sliced-up buildings push the boundaries between objecthood and deconstruction. And, it has to be said that Din Q Le’s ‘Helicoptor’ installation was simply astonishing.
Matta-Clark's cut-up building
another Matta-Clark cut-up
‘In-between-ness’ is what Eyebeam is all about, and I loved seeing the boundaries between art and science get (literally) chewed up here. We attended the December, X-Lab theme dinner, somewhat cryptically dubbed ‘Space Invaders,’ but it concerned itself primarily with matters alimentary and chemical. Stefani Bardin wowed us with an account of her explorations into wireless gastroenterology, sharing with us some fetching movies taken from inside the human digestive tract, via a pill-sized transponder that is swallowed, and eventually retrieved at the toilet end of its tortuous journey. It was amazing to see how throroughly junk food impeded the progress of our intrepid little gastronaut and I’ll be thinking twice about having that second helping of Gummi Bears the next time I get the urge.
Also on the evening’s bill were presentations by Brooke Singer, who showed us some haunting images of the Superfund sites she is documenting and John Cohrs, who told us about a canoe trip he dubbed The Spice Trade Expedition in which he and his band of latter day voyageurs paddled into the industrial wastelands of New Jersey in search of the origins of artificial flavoring. We ended our eclectic evening doing a little flavor-tripping of our own in the form of Synsepalum dulcificum fruits, which, after we sucked them for a while, fooled our taste buds into perceiving everything that touched them as sweet. A lemon slice I was chewing seemed suddenly like the sweetest pink grapefruit of all and even a swig of the liquid from a jar of dill pickles went down like church picnic fruit punch. “I love phyto-chemicals!” I thought to myself on the long subway ride home, and then fell asleep to the reassuring hiss of steam pipes, my lips still pleasantly numb.
I wanted to bring to your attention Vancouver’s lovely, lonely ‘Monument to Nothing,’ whose emptiness is free for all to adore and onto which, in the eye of our minds, we can project the objects of our deepest adulation. I’m standing in its sunken piazza, watching an empty shopping cart rattle against the circular steps with the tail wind of every passing transport truck. The pavement shudders and the diesel soot billows in the tormented air like the thought bubbles of demons. Around me, a ring ofbrutalist concrete tees that stand astride stymied balls of topiary. A nod perhaps to the Roman colosseum or the classical amphitheater? But then again, maybe not.
I love this place. I came here on a pilgrimage to remember the things I never knew. Like the silverfish, which can live for a year without eating but prefer instead a diet of dandruff and carpet fibers. I remember a bronze head that was never here. I’d thought I’d seen it years ago, out of the corner of my eye, a jowly visage in medieval headgear. I even took it for granted. But no, it wasn’t. Not ever. Here.
Karl Marx’s head was never here
Lincoln’s head was never here either
he was here for a while
What was here, though? I felt the need for research, which always feel like the man rolling up his sleeve about to slide his wrist into the cheesecloth cage of hungry mosquitoes. “They don’t bite – they don’t even light!” Only sometimes they do. And then you die. Of malaria. Or dengue fever. Or any of the other assorted little ills that, if you are famous enough in life, might get a monument to you erected after you kick the bucket. Take Christopher Columbus – Admiral of the Ocean Sea; Viceroy and Governor of the Indies. We don’t know how he died. Maybe it was syphilis, the vexing stowaway that snuck its way to Europe in the pants of his sailors. It was this Columbus who, once upon a much later time, sat for a while, perched on a lonely plinth, gazing out wistfully over Clark Drive’s seething traffic, a continent away from the sea he once crossed, his back turned to another ocean – the one he never imagined in his lifetime. And not just his disembodied head, the way I’d misremembered it, but his entire gangling body too, as it appeared, or was thought to have appeared in the days of his callow youth, when he was just a proto-Columbus, who hadn’t yet sailed the ocean blue, or even likely thought about it. Is that nothing? It’s not nothing, but it’s barely something. Soon barely something became nothing again, when the sculpture disappeared, seconded by a cadre of mysterious Italian-Canadian aesthetes who kept the bronze boy wonder sequestered for several months before relocating him to the more commodious environs of Hastings Park. So Clark Drive’s monument to nothing remains as such, free from any distracting somethings, empty and beautiful for all of us to think about that which once was but is no longer or maybe, never was at all.