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Posts tagged ‘Asia’

Nuclear culture in Japan. Pt 2: Road trip through Fukushima exclusion zone

After my lecture at the Actinium nuclear forum in Sapporo, a group of us (Arts Catalyst team and artists with Kyoko Tachibana from our partners S-AIR) travelled by plane and bullet train to Fukushima City (located 60km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant). If we weren’t already aware of what we were heading into, this was the first thing we saw on leaving the rail station:

Geiger counter, Fukushima City

Geiger counter, Fukushima City

Fukushima City was not evacuated after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It is the prefectural capital with a population of more than 280,000. On the surface, life appears to continue here as normal.

We met with Shuji Akagi, an artist and high school art teacher, who lives in the city (Shuji’s work was shown in the Actinium exhibition and he spoke at the forum). Since 2011, Shuji has been meticulously photographically documenting the decontamination of the city. He took us on a tour of the city to give us some insight into this vast process, which involves the rather low-tech process of scrubbing roads, buildings and trees with street sweeping vehicles, high-powered sprayers, and hand-held brushes. In addition, the first metre of topsoil is being removed from parks and gardens and reburied elsewhere. The plan is to decontaminate the entire city. It has taken three years so far and it looks a long way from being finished.

Roadway circular scratches caused by machine

Scratches from decontamination process on the roads, Fukushima City

The photo below is of one of the temporary storage sites for contaminated topsoil in the heart of this busy city. Hidden from street view behind a fence, here they are storing topsoil, which will then be reburied elsewhere in Fukushima prefecture. The city has difficulty finding storage sites to keep contaminated soil. When first removed, it is temporarily stored on the premises of schools and people’s homes, buried in yards or covered in plastic sheets, awaiting collection. 

Numerous black bags containing soil with blue covering in large hole in central city location

Contaminated topsoil, Fukyshima City

Sign with blue Japanese writing

Blue ‘decontamination site’ sign – these are found all over Fukushima City and the region

All around the city, you see these piles of contaminated topsoil.

Blue covered pile outside shop with vending machine next to it

Contaminated topsoil awaiting collection, Fukushima City

Shuji took us to see a large temporary storage site, where this topsoil is then taken, just on the edge of the city by Fukushima University. The topsoil is stored here before being relocated again for burial.

Vast hole in the ground containing large black and blue plastic bags. Sign - picture of worker with hands outstretched in warning and Japanese writing

Temporary contaminated topsoil storage site, near Fukushima University

How do the people of the city feel about the decontamination? Do they discuss its progress? Do they think it is effective? Shuji told us that it is rarely discussed by the city’s inhabitants in general conversation. The city authorities say the city is safe and the city returned quite quickly to normal after the disaster, almost as though nothing had happened. He finds this very strange. But he does not know if he is too worried, or not worried enough, about the dangers posed by the contamination. He knows he looks for spots of high radiation, while others prefer to be reassured, and he finds it difficult to find others in the city as concerned as he is. The art world outside Fukushima and internationally, where his photographs are widely exhibited, gives him an arena to discuss the things that concern him so greatly that he relocated his family to another city, 80 km away, although he still works in Fukushima City to keep up their income.

From Fukushima City, our group drove to Soma, closer to the Fukushima restricted zone, where we stayed the night. Shuji accompanied us, interested to visit the evacuation zone around the power plant. In the early hours, the hotel shook. An earthquake. A small one for here. A common occurrence. And this is where they build nuclear reactors? This feels increasingly uncanny, a place where abnormal things have become normalised.

The restricted zone

It is complex to explain the spatial aspect of the exclusion and restricted zones around Fukushima. This is one map I’ve found that can help, and it usefully shows the location of Fukushima City. Initially, the exclusion (evacuation) zone was a 20km circle around the around the Fukushima Daiichi plant  – shown on the map below. However, the coloured areas show how the radiation was actually distributed, due to the wind direction. This meant that the original evacuation zone was soon extended Northwest towards Fukushima City, although the city itself was left outside it.

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The restricted zone today continues to be adjusted to allow people into areas with lower radiation levels, and move them out of areas with higher levels. Below is a recent, although by no means up-to-date, map. The green areas show those parts of the original exclusion zone that people are now allowed back into. The orange are areas where people are only allowed in during the day to work or visit former homes, but cannot live there, or which can only be visited at all with a special permit. The pink area is the Red Zone, the most contaminated area, which is extremely restricted. Due to the revised shape of the exclusion zone, by driving down Highway 6 from Soma, and with a special permit, we were able to come within 4km of the Daiichi power plant itself and to visit the evacuated town of Namie.

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The morning after our bumpy sleep, we set off with Shuji and a local guide (a former farmer, evacuated from his house in the exclusion zone, who stays in the area working with an NGO). Driving along Highway 6, we found ourselves tailing one of the many trucks carrying radioactive topsoil. It’s a massive industry here, the clean up. We stopped in Minamisoma (a formerly evacuated city to which inhabitants have been allowed to return) to pick up our permit, allowing us to enter the Orange Zone.

Our guide took us to the coastal area where he lived to the north of the Daiichi plant. In most of the area affected by the tsunami, the clean up has erased most obvious physical evidence. Here, the physical evidence of the tsunami is frozen in time, a consequence of the radioactivity that has fallen on the area. “Here most people got out” our guide says as we reached some derelict houses. “Here, over 100 people died”, he informed us, as we passed an area where there was no trace of any houses – washed away by the force of the tsunami.

Damaged rural houses

Houses deserted post-tsunami damage, Fukushima exclusion zone

Interior of house devastated by tsunami

Interior of house devastated by tsunami

Gold dome and square building

Deserted planetarium, Orange Zone, Fukushima

Boats stranded in paddy fields by the tsunami

Boats stranded in paddy fields by the tsunami

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Tsunami debris

Passing the checkpoint at which we showed our permit, we arrived at the edge of the Red Zone. Getting out of our minivan, we could just make out Fukushima Daiichi’s plant’s reactors, 4 km away, across a river with a broken bridge. Ele Carpenter took her Geiger counter out and placed it close to the water source (where radioactivity concentrates). The readings on the counter had increased as we’d got closer to the Red Zone, but not significantly.

View over ruined bridge towards distant hills and electricity pylons

Looking out towards the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (from 4km)

Geiger counter placed on a crack in the road

Ele’s Geiger counter, Fukushima Prefecture

As we looked out across the landscape, a pair of workers emerged by car from the Red Zone wearing white suits. This was the first sign we had seen of anyone in protective wear.

Men in white overalls and face masks get into a white car

Workers leaving the Red Zone, 4km from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Bizarrely, a Google streetcar passed us as we stood there. Will we be on Google Street View, captured hanging around uncertainly in this uncertain uncanny zone?

We drove to Namie next, a ghost town on the edge of the Red Zone, evacuated after the disaster.

A deserted high street of a small Japanese town

Namie ghost town, Fukushima exclusion zone

In a shop, piles of newspapers left from the day of the evacuation. Kyoko read the headlines for us – they were about the earthquake.

Stack of newspapers in Japanese

Stack of newspapers from the day of the evacuation, shop in Namie, Fukushima exclusion zone

The Geiger counter reading increased and we decided to leave quite quickly to be on the safe side.

We dropped Susan Schuppli off near where our guide’s house was, where she wanted more time to do some filming – I’d offered to drive back later to collect her – and we drove back to Soma. The others headed for Fukushima City from there, while I collected the small car I’d hired and drove the 90 minute journey back into the restricted zone to rendezvous with Susan. I found her filming in the middle of a field near a major seawall rebuilding project. We decide to drive back into Namie for a little more filming and, out of curiosity, we then headed to the edge of the Red Zone on Highway 6. It was the rush hour, and we looked on astonished at the endless stream of traffic emerging from the Red Zone carrying workers. It was almost bumper to bumper driving back through Namie, but no one stops in this town. There are no shops open, yet it looks like a functioning town. It’s just that there’s no one here anymore. And probably never will be.

Bowling hall in the evacuated ghost town of Namie, Fukishima exclusion zone

Bowling hall in the evacuated ghost town of Namie, Fukishima exclusion zone

View of rolling hills at sunset

View inland from the coast, Fukushima exclusion zone

We drove back to Fukushima City over the hills, skirting the edge of the Red Zone and passing through the deserted picturesque village of Iitate, an unfortunate place that was hit badly by the radiation despite being 40km from the power plant and outside the 30km exclusion zone around the plant. A feeling of great sadness and waste hit me, a sense of displaced people, disrupted lives and an invisibly toxic landscape.

Nuclear culture in Japan. Part 1: Actinium programme, Sapporo, Hokkaido

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

I’ve been in Japan for Arts Catalyst’s Actinium exhibition and forum, part of an ongoing partnership between The Arts Catalyst and S-AIR in Sapporo, and part of the collaborative programme for the Sapporo International Art Festival.

The Actinium exhibition, held at Oyoyo in central Sapporo, was a hub for discussion about contemporary nuclear culture in Japan. It hosted film screenings and a forum, as well as being the base for field trips for artists and curators to explore the relationships between culture and nuclear power in northern Japan after 2011, the year in which the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded shook the country, causing widespread destruction and triggering powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in some parts. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people and caused a series of nuclear accidents, primarily the major meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, which led to evacuations affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photographs by Shuji Akagi (foreground), Temporary Index by Thomson & Craighead (rear), re-creation of James Acord’s nuclear round table (right). Photo: Ele Carpenter

Before 2011, Japan generated 30 per cent of its electrical power from nuclear reactors, even though Japan is subject to frequent earthquakes, located near a triple fault line between the Eurasian plate, the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate. Since 2011, many of Japan’s nuclear plants were closed or their operations suspended. The last of Japan’s fifty nuclear reactors (at Tomari in Hokkaido) went offline in May 2012.

Today, Japan and its northern island of Hokkaido face critical decisions about whether to re-start their nuclear plants, as well as where to store nuclear waste in a highly nuclear-dependent nation, how to support the Fukushima evacuees and what to do with the contaminated debris and topsoil from the region. The after effects of the Fukushima disaster are complex and highly sensitive.

Japanese artists have responded strongly to this crisis and it has deeply affected many practices. The Actinium exhibition was curated by Arts Catalyst associate curator Ele Carpenter, who has been leading the Nuclear Culture programme, a curatorial research programme based at The Arts Catalyst and Goldsmiths College, which combines artists’ field trips, new commissions, exhibitions, film screenings, interdisciplinary symposia, and public talks. Ele Carpenter spent a month in Sapporo last year, as curator-in-residence at S-AIR, meeting Japanese artists and curators to research the Japanese cultural response to the Fukushima disaster and nuclear power in Japan today.

The Actinium programme emerged from this research, involving the exhibition and forum, and enabling a number of artists from the UK to visit Japan. The Actinium exhibition included works by artists from Japan, the UK, the US and Canada, several of whom also attended the forum. With Japanese curators, artists and other experts, the visiting group also made field trips to the Underground Research Center for radioactive waste storage at Horonobe, and the Nuclear Power Plant at Tomari, before heading south to Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord's round table (left), which was re-created for the exhibition

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord’s round table (left)

The Actinium Forum

The forum brought together artists with Japanese academics, activists and researchers in the field of nuclear culture. Discussion topics included political, social, material and philosophical concerns, geologic time, the nuclear cycle, radiation, immateriality and invisibility.

In my opening talk, I raised the issue of dependency on expertise and questions around the legitimacy of that expertise in modern technoscientific democratic societies (referencing Sheila Jasanoff’s writings). Through the lens of Langdon Winner’s analysis of the political character of technology, I discussed some of the Arts Catalyst’s work that engages with or critiques centralized systems of technology, such as nuclear energy, and our interest in exploring alternatives to centralised science, such as renewable energy, open source technologies and  citizen (or civic) science projects, exemplified by Arts Catalyst’s role in the Arctic Perspective Initiative, a multidisciplinary project led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman that aims to develop free and open source science and technology tools for citizens of the North, showing in the Sapporo International Art Festival.

Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

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Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

There were then a series of fascinating artists’ presentations by Ryuta Ushiro from artists collective Chim↑Pom, who introduced the group’s work and controversial artistic response to the Fukushima disaster, Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead who discussed their evolving work ‘Temporary Index’ a proposal for a counter representing the decay rate of a number of nuclear waste products to consider our relationship with deep time and our legacy of nuclear weapons and energy, and Shuji Akagi, an artist, high school teacher and resident of Fukushima City who has been photographically documenting the decontamination process around his city over the last three years, and whose photographs – revealing the immense scale of the process of removing and burying contaminated topsoil – formed a compelling part of the exhibition. Further artists’ talks were given by Susan Schuppli, whose work investigates the concept of ‘the material witness’, entities that record evidence of passing events, and Takashi Noguchi, who tried to visually capture the invisible radiation in his photographs from Fukushima by wrapping them in dark bags with radioactive soil.

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Takashi Noguchi at the Actinium Forum

In the afternoon were two fascinating presentations by scientist Dr Yogo Ono and lawyer Norio Sugasawa.

Dr Yugo Ono is a geographer, geo-ecologist and environmental scientist, a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and professor at Hokusei Gakuen University, Sapporo. Ono says he has been deeply influenced by the late Jinzaburo Takagi’s ideas about citizen science. Ono discussed his estimates of radiation contamination if an accident occurred at the Tomari nuclear power plant on Hokkaido. Unlike at Fukushima, where 80 per cent of the radiation was blown out to sea, at Tomari, where winds blow from the west, almost all the radioactivity would be blown inland, devastating large areas of Hokkaido. Ono established the Group for Decommissioning the Tomari NPP, and has filed a lawsuit aimed at the decommissioning of the plant. As a side note, Ono also participates in the movement to restore the rights of indigenous Ainu people and the movement against the Sanru Dam construction.

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Norio Sugasawa spoke about his work with the Decommission Tomari Campaign, on a civil suit against Hokkaido Electric Power Company (HEPCO) that owns Tomari Nuclear power station, as well as legal cases being taken against nuclear power across Japan since March 11, 2011, with some recent success, although Sugasawa pointed out the ultimate decisions about nuclear power will not be legal but political.

The forum ended with a series of extremely animated ‘break out’ roundtable discussions. In the one I attended, there was discussion about Japanese people’s response to the disaster and some concern expressed that people aboard may feel their response too passive (although there have been many protests and legal cases against nuclear power) – would people from other countries have protested more loudly? In a group that was a mix of Japanese and Western people, we agreed that the 3.11 disaster was so profound and traumatic that it was difficult to say that in another country people would have responded differently. Although the Japanese in the group explained that in their culture people tend not to state their opposition or objections out loud, the group realized that this did not mean that there had not been deep questioning, protest and activism, nor could it be said that a more outspoken culture would have reacted very differently under similarly overwhelming circumstances. The Japanese situation was uniquely devastating, but there were lessons to be learned from it for the world.

The Actinium programme (exhibition, forum, exchange & research trips) was supported by the Daiwa Foundation, Goldsmiths College, University of London, SIAF, the Pola Art Foundation, Arts Council England, Agency for Cultural Affairs, City of Sapporo, S-AIR and The Arts Catalyst.

In my next Japan installment, I will report on our road trip to the Fukushima exclusion zone.

Dispatches from the Republic of the Moon

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Leonid Tiskov, Private Moon

An artist hand-rears a flock of moon geese as future astronauts; a man meets the moon and stays with her for the rest of his life; the word SHE mysteriously floats across the lunar surface; Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata bounces off the moon in morse code; artists organise a protest against moon colonisation …

REPUBLIC OF THE MOON
Agnes Meyer-Brandis | Katie Paterson | Liliane Lijn | Leonid Tishkov | WE COLONISED THE MOON | Moon Vehicle

Opening: Thursday 9 January 2014, 6:30-8:30pm
Exhibition: 10 January-2 February 2014, open daily 11am-6pm
Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London SE1 9PH
Events, including Kosmica Full Moon Party and family workshops, throughout the run. Book now!

Today, China claimed success in landing its ‘Jade Rabbit’ robotic rover on the Moon, the first soft landing there for 37 years. Now China wants to send a human to the Moon. Does this and India’s Mars plans herald the start of a new Asian space race? Back in 2006, NASA announced it would establish a base on the Moon, but this plan was shelved when Obama took over from Bush. Japan and Russia also announced similar plans at the same time.

But why send humans back to the Moon? One argument is that it would be valuable for science, enabling us to study the geology and other conditions of our natural satellite. It’s also been suggested that the Moon could be a valuable base for studying the universe, providing a site for astronomy. Another argument is that the Moon can help to provide the Earth with solar and nuclear power: developing large areas of the Moon into solar farms might enable energy to be beamed back to Earth, or Helium-3 could be mined to use in nuclear fusion. But most arguments for returning to the Moon hinge on its potential use as a ‘launch’ site for expeditions to Mars and beyond, ultimately providing the potential for humankind to leave an endangered Earth.

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Moon Vehicle workshops, Bangalore, India

Many have waded into the debate for and against colonising the Moon, but what have artists to say on the matter? From earliest times, artists and writers have imagined journeying to the Moon, although the topic did not become popular until the 17th century with the invention of the telescope. One of the earliest of these stories is by the English science fiction writer Francis Godwin, whose The Man in the Moone (1638) imagines a man flying to the Moon using a contraption pulled by geese. But it was Jules Verne’s visions in his novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel Around the Moon (1870) that directly inspired the Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the American Robert Goddard who created and built the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket.

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Agnes Meyer Brandis, Moon Goose Colony (2011)

Now that a new space age is dawning, with a new geopolitical dimension, The Arts Catalyst is bringing together a group of artists to re-imagine our relationship with the Moon.

The exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’, which launches The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary year, will transform the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into a lunar embassy on Earth, filled with artists’ fantastical imaginings  and playful protests against lunar exploitation. With works by artists from across the globe including Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Agnes Meyer Brandis, Katie Paterson, and WE COLONISED THE MOON, and contributions by artists, scientists and space experts, the exhibition mingles personal encounters, DIY space plans, imaginary expeditions, and new myths for the next space age.

Declaring a temporary autonomous zone of the Moon in a small part of London, the Arts Catalyst invites people to come and reflect on the future of the Moon and our relationship with this celestial body that has, for 45 years, held a dual role in our imagination – both as a romantic silvery disc and site of dreams, and as a place of rocks and dust and strategic and scientific possibility. Animating the exhibition and enabling interaction, there will be talks, debates, workshops, a Kosmica full moon party, a pop-up moon shop, and playful protests against lunar exploitation. Hope to see you there.

The first version of Republic of the Moon was co-commissioned and presented by The Arts Catalyst and FACT, Liverpool, in 2011.

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Sue Corke and Hagen Betzweiser (We Colonised The Moon): Back in 5 Minutes (2009)

Some responses to War at the speed of light …

James Bridle, Dronestagram, 2012

A couple of recent interesting blog posts have picked up on my War at the Speed of Light: artists and drone warfare post a few weeks ago, which reviewed Omer Fast and Trevor Paglen’s works at the Brighton Photo Biennial.

Geographer Dr Alan Ingram, in his post Making geopolitics creepy and cool with art, fascinatingly analyses the use of particular words in the comments books at Fast and Paglen’s exhibitions: ‘stunning’, ‘cool’, ‘creepy’, ‘ugh’, ‘*shudders*, ‘oh no…’, ‘weird’, ‘wow’, ‘huh?’, by way of François Debrix, JJ Charlesworth, and neuropolitics (more please, Alan, this is a fantastic subject!). Ingram’s excellent blog Art and War is part of an academic research project exploring the responses of artists and art institutions in the UK to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq,

Meanwhile, Honor Harger’s Drone’s Eye View: a Look at How Artists Are Revealing the Killing Fields, whose venue Lighthouse in Brighton hosted the Paglen show, introduces James Bridle’s significant body of work on drone warfare. Bridle’s Drone Shadow is an ongoing investigation into the shadow of the drone, in which one-to-one representations of the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are drawn to scale on urban landscapes, while his new project Dronestagram, launched this month, is a social media project on TwitterInstagram and Tumblr which posts a drone’s-eye-view of strike locations.

Thanks to both!

Also, in case you’ve missed it, I draw your attention to Culture+Conflict, a UK-based not-for-profit agency, founded in 2011 by Michaela Crimmon, Peter Jenkinson and Jemima Montagu, which focuses on the role of the arts and culture within conflict and post conflict situations across the world.

War at the speed of light: artists and drone warfare

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet Is the Best, 2011, digital film stills © Omer Fast

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”
- quote from Omer Fast’s 5000 Is the Best, 2011.

Paul Virilio, in his 1998 book ‘The Vision Machine’, predicted a machine that “will be capable of seeing and perceiving in our place”. A key concept in Virilio’s writing is dromology, or the logic of speed. The one and simple rule of technology development has been that of ever-increasing speed, and this rule seems to define fundamental aspects of warfare and society. Real space has been supplanted by real time because we can receive information from everywhere on the globe in real-time, reducing human perception to a kind of ‘polar inertia’.

Last week, US immigration officials’ detention and interrogation of Pakistan politician Imran Kahn – a vehement critic of US drone attacks in Pakistan – as he boarded a flight from Canada to New York, threw a spotlight on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare. UAVs, or drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. They basically fall into two categories: those used for reconnaissance and surveillance, and those armed with missiles and bombs. Although British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from a USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens. Armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, but their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera, LowDrone

Contemporary artists have increasingly vigorously engaged with the subject of war and its consequences over the last decade, since the commencement of Bush’s global “war on terror” and the Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, there have been a string of recent artists’ project exploring the rapidly escalating use and impact of drones in surveillance and warfare, such as Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera’s remote-controlled “low-rider” spy drone, positioned at the United States-Mexico border and controllable by anyone with an Internet connection, and photojournalist Noor Behram’s brave documentation of the human toll of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Trevor Paglen, Reaper Drone (Indian Springs, NV Distance – 2 miles), 2012

Two artists’ exhibitions in the recent Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme was ‘Agents of Change’, address the subject of remote warfare and surveillance through works that at the same time unpick the role of the photograph or video in the propagation of ideas, and question the assumption of the documentary as truth-telling.

Trevor Paglen is known for his meticulously researched documentation of “black sites” of secret government activity, which he photographs using specialized equipment. His show at Lighthouse, Brighton, featured photographic works drawn from two series: Limit Telephotography, in which the artist adapted astronomy telescopes to reveal classified, covert US military installations, including drone bases, in remote parts of south-west USA, and The Other Night Sky, his photographs of classified American surveillance satellites. Paglen’s photographs are an uneasy blend of abstract allure, art-historical references, and disquieting subject matter. They draw our attention not only to the geography of covert operations – the remote sites, and the militarisation of sky and space – but also to the mechanisation of vision and its implications in a global arena of political tension and warfare. His distant photographs of partially visible airplane hangers, drone aircraft and strange installations are blurred, the images of spy satellites use long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths. The exhibition also includes Paglen’s 2010 video work Drone Vision, a stream of unencrypted video intercepted by an amateur satellite hacker.

Trevor Paglen, Keyhole Improved Crystal from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008

Omer Fast’s latest chilling narrative film work 5000 Feet Is the Best explores remote warfare and its psychological impact on a drone pilot. Fast’s unsettling video-works construct contemporary stories through a masterly grasp of storytelling, reworking time, facts and personal perspective, exposing of the problematic assumptions of objectivity and truth. He often presents his films in a looped structure, with no obvious start or end point, and challenges our absorption in the tale by revealing its construction – showing the actor auditioning for a part, for example, or repeating a section but altering it.

5000 Feet Is the Best is based on conversations that the artist had with a former Predator drone aerial unmanned vehicle operator with post traumatic stress disorder, now working as a Las Vegas casino security guard. As I enter the space, the film shows an overhead shot of a boy on a bike cycling across an arid landscape towards a settlement. The voiceover is of an interview with a former drone operator explaining the detail that he could see when the drone is at 5000 feet or above: “the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture”.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

The film interweaves and blurs reality and fiction. It is structured around three dramatized sequences. Each starts in the same way, in dark hotel room, the pilot (an actor) sitting on the bed facing his interviewer, presumably Fast. Each time Fast asks: “What’s the difference between you and someone actually in an airplane?”, and the pilot answers, “Nothing, we’re doing the same thing”, to which Fast replies “But you’re not a real pilot”, provoking each time a different outburst from the drone operator, who then falls into telling a story, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which we watch dramatised unfold on the screen. One story is about a man who poses as a train driver, operates the train smoothly for an entire day, but is arrested that night breaking into his own home (having left his keys in his borrowed uniform). The interviewer asks: “Was the man in this story someone in your unit?” The drone pilot replies shortly: “No. It’s a metaphor.” A second story is of a couple in a casino who engage in a seduction scam to rob casino customers. The last story is of a family – personified as a white, American family – who abandon their home to avoid some unknown trouble, only to meet a tragedy on the road. “Mom, Dad, Johnny, and little Zoe” pack their belongings into a station wagon. On a lonely dirt road, they see a group of men planting an improvised explosive device. The image cuts to the view from a drone. The family’s car drives slowly towards the men. There is a humming noise from the sky …

The stories are interspersed with the audio of the interview, where the drone pilot talks of his work and of his psychological trauma over his responsibility for killing: “You see a lot of death … doing this. You had to think there is so much loss of life that is a direct result of me.”

Remote warfare aims to distance the public, as well as the operators of the drones, from the people “over there”. Paglen’s work exposes the covertness and mechanics of such warfare technologies, while Fast attempts to remake the perceptual connections between “us and them” to show that, despite Virilio’s prediction that such technologies will lead to the ‘automation of perception’, killing is still a personal and human experience, even when mediated by speed-of-light telepresence.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

Ruins, conflict, culture and science: dOCUMENTA (13)

Kader Attia, The Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012

Many adjectives have already been wielded to describe this year’s documenta, “earnest”, “grim”, “despondent” and “concept-less” among them. Certainly, there are few laughs in this year’s documenta (the 13th since its founding in 1955 by an artist banned by the Nazis), but in all it’s a deeply satisfying experience.

Many of the works by 300 artists – mostly new commissions – are site-specific, installed in railway stations, disused shops, hotels, cinemas, old hospitals, the natural history museum, and scattered throughout Karlsaue park. I appreciated the serious-minded intent behind the works, and the internationalism of the exhibition both in content and representation, with artists from fifty-six countries including many from Africa and Asia.

A large number of the works mark significant events or occurrences, including varied perspectives on recent upheavals in Egypt, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The works in the main exhibition in the Fridericianum have a particular focus on conflict, catastrophe, ruin, trauma, survival and repair across many historical events, as though such events and restorations were on an endless loop. There are many absorbing works here, but I spent a particularly long time in Kader Attia’s disturbing, fascinating installation, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, a maze of repaired African artefacts, vintage colonialist texts and wood-carved busts of disfigured faces, and a slideshow of facially injured World War I soldiers provocatively juxtaposed with mended African masks.

Many powerful works are sited in and around the Hauptbahnhof railway station, among them William Kentridge’s stunning video and sound work The Refusal of Time (which elicited a round of applause), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s augmented reality audio tour of the station linking it to a darker past, Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-screen multiple histories of a monastery in Germany: from concentration camp to girls reformatory to psychiatric clinic, and Lara Favaretto’s vast pile of industrial debris.

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument IV (Kassel), 2012

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012

dOCUMENTA (13) has been called “genre-busting”. Its curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev stated that she wanted to broaden documenta’s focus from the visual arts to culture at large. This has been largely done through the mode of the artist’s enquiry, but there are also non-artists involved, including physicists, biologists and social scientists, and a scattering of historical artefacts.

The role of science in this “culture at large” is most prominently represented by the Austrian physicist Anton Zeileger’s Quanta Now, a series of five important quantum physics experiments installed in the Fridericianum, including the double slit experiment and quantum entanglement of photon pairs. There is also an installation in the same building of Russian biologist Alexander Tarakhovsky’s work on epigenetics, and the Bavarian priest and artist Korbinian Aigner’s multiple paintings of the new strains of apples he created while in Dachau concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Donna Haraway’s writings on multi-species co-evolution inspired the artist Tue Greenfort to compile and present an archive of artists’ materials, texts, books, videos and documentation of artworks dealing with the relationship between human and non-human species (including Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema, an Arts Catalyst commission).

Anton Zeilinger, Quanta Now (installation detail of the experiment on quantum entanglement of photon pairs), 2012

Korbinian Aigner, Apples, 1912–1960s

Ecological themes are very present, in the process-based projects by Pratchaya Phinthong, whose simple installation – two dead tsetse flies, one female carrying the deadly disease sleeping sickness and her sterile consort – is underpinned by a research project, in which Phinthong has been traveling in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia and providing locals with inexpensive traps to help control the tsetse fly populations, and Amy Balkin, who has been trying to get the Earth’s atmosphere included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ecology is closely tied closely to politics in the beautiful and coherent exhibition in the Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum, with Amar Kanwar’s moving installation The Sovereign Forest tackling the forcible displacements of indigenous communities and peasants in Odisha (Orissa), India, by commercial interests, Claire Pentecost’s elegant and thoughtful installation Soil-Erg, in which she proposes a new system of value based on living soil, and Maria Thereza Alves’ installation on five centuries of damage done to Lake Chalco in Mexico and the people who live there.

Pratchaya Phinthong, Sleeping Sickness, 2012

Claire Pentecost, Soil-Erg, 2012

Elsewhere, the politics of nuclear energy are presented both in Mika Taanila’s stylish 3-screen video work The Most Electrified Town in Finland and the Otolith Group’s film Radiant, which explores Japan’s fated love affair with the unstable atom which culminated in the Fukushima reactor meltdown.

In documenta-Halle, Thomas Bayrle’s car engine prayer-machines and collaged airplane suggest our very dreams rely on carbon-burning technologies, while Yan Lei has hung a room with 360 paintings, produced one per day over a year, inspired by internet images. During dOCUMENTA (13), the paintings will be gradually removed, spray painted in the local Volkswagen car factory, and then returned to the exhibition.

Mika Taanila, The Most Electrified Town in Finland, 2012

Thomas Bayrle installation, dOCUMENTA (13), 2012

Yan Lei, Limited Art Project, 2012

Karlsaue park is the site for many intriguing works, both in the landscape and installed in small buildings. Standouts for me are Omer Fast’s extraordinary tale of a couple’s disturbed, unsettling response to the death of their soldier son in Afganistan (confirming my art crush on this remarkable artist), CAMP’s gentle reflections on maritime life and the informal economy across the Indian Ocean, and Sam Durant’s alluring playground-gallows.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012

Sam Durant, Scaffold, 2012

Two real “conflicts” disturbed the civilised art-going days of the dOCUMENTA (13) previews. First, the failure of dOCUMENTA (13)’s aim to transport the El Chaco meteorite, a 37-ton, 4,000-year-old lump of space rock, from aboriginal land in Argentina to Kassel, as proposed by artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolas Goldberg, continued to stir debate during the opening week. It was a controversial proposal, strongly and successfully protested by indigenous Argentians.

Indigenous Argentinians protesting the removal of the El Chaco meteorite for inclusion in documenta 13

And then, on preview day, above the peaceful sunlit Karlsaue park, rose Critical Art Ensemble (CAE)’s shatteringly–loud helicopter, rising and sinking several times an hour, audible – and frequently visible – across the town, invading art-going experience and drowning conversations. In A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, CAE raised a huge bar graph depicting wealth disparity across the world. 99% of the world’s incomes fitted onto the banner, but the globe’s richest 1% required a helicopter to soar 250 meters up in the sky. Exclusive €300 tickets were purchased by an irony-unencumbered fifty people, only twelve of whom showed up on the day to be escorted down a red carpet for their flight. The 99%, meanwhile, could buy a lottery ticket and the chance to win a ride.

Some of the reason for this economic disparity, as well perhaps as the mechanics for the endless cycle of manmade disasters, are revealed in Mark Lombardi’s obsessive mapping of corruption, politics and finance, that make visible the hidden connections between political and economic processes, corporation, and individuals.

Critical Art Ensemble, A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, 2012


Terra Infirma: finding the ‘geo’ in geopolitics

a smoke-filled domestic living room with a model volcano in the centre

Nelly Ben Hayoun, The Other Volcano

‘Terra Infirma – experimenting with geo-political practices
’ was an academic workshop which was held in The Arts Catalyst’s Clerkenwell space. The organisers (UCL Department of Geography) proposed the question: What does the ‘geo’ in ‘geo-politics’ actually do? to spark an enquiry around the interplay between human politics and physical geography in a time of climate change and resource shortages.

The philosopher Michel Serres, wrote workshop convenor Angela Last in her introduction to the workshop, has proposed to rethink geo-political relations through the term ‘Biogée’ (from Greek ‘bios’ – life; ‘gē’ – earth), attempting to re-connect the separated spheres of ‘life’ and ‘earth’ to form a ‘contemporary global state’. One of the areas that the workshop sought to explore were links or parallels between the ‘biopolitical’ and the ‘geopolitical’. The day opened with some theoretical provocations by Nigel Clark, whose recent work looks at ethical and political responses to the disasters of abrupt climate change, Kathryn Yusoff, who introduced the deep time perspective that, as humans, we’re only one step away from being fossils (a strata in the landscape), and Joanne Sharp, whose paper attempted to reconnect the ‘bio’ and ‘geo’ in the geopolitics of Africa.

In the following session, “experience designer” Nelly Ben Hayoun, in a presentation with disaster management geographer Carina Fearnly, livened things up by setting off a volcano in the Arts Catalyst space. Not wishing to trigger the smoke alarms in the space, the volcano preparation was placed on an outside windowsill. We naively hoped the eruption would be small and disperse quickly outside. Great clouds of smoke promptly filled the room, and Rob and I raced around fanning the smoke clouds and desperately sticking plastic bags over the smoke alarms. It was certainly an effective demonstration of the unpredictability and potential for devastation of geophysical events.

cross section diagram of land and sea showing geoengineering proposals

Hack the Planet. Image: Kathleen Smith/LLNL

After that interlude, I confess I did not take in much of Angela Last’s presentation, as we were cleaning up, but I tuned in again for Bron Szerszynski’s fascinating presentation on ‘Making Climates’, a theoretical discussion around geoengineering, in which he discussed the question “What is a ‘made’ climate?” by considering different notions of ‘making’: producing (trying to recreate existing forms), educing (bringing out latent forms from nature) and creating (designing new forms), and how we might apply these concepts to the approaches to the architecture of climate.

Remains of a bombed car in an art gallery

Jeremy Deller, Iraq car bomb remains

The final session covered experimental geopolitics with presentations by Andrew Barry and Alan Ingram. Ingram’s current research surveys artists whose work addresses the Iraq War, spanning contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller and Mark Wallinger, official war artists, and artists and curators from Iraq and the surrounding region.

The day felt incredibly broad in its topics, but it certainly opened up some interesting ideas and avenues of enquiry (as well as potential arguments that clearly were to be continued in the pub afterwards).

It is interesting to me – both as a cultural producer who initiates investigational art projects to open up new exchanges between disciplines and publics, and as a former student of geography - how popular contemporary art has suddenly become with geographers these days. This interest is in art both as an area of research, and as alternative modes of geographical knowledge-making and dissemination for a more ‘public’ geography.

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