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A history of forgetting

Pavel Medvedev, On the Third Planet from the Sun (still)

Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff is regarded as a leading light in the field of science and technology studies. Her calls for ‘technologies of humility’ in policy-making in science and her careful analyses of the role of political culture in policy-making in the field of biotechnology are hugely important, yet have not had the impact they should. Yesterday, in her keynote lecture at Transmediale, she gently challenged the festival’s rhetoric of the need for a paradigm shift of thinking in relation to climate change and more general talk of discontinuities in this respect, and outlined her skepticism of claims that the world has been changed forever. In an eloquent, clear and engaging talk, structured around a number of stories and images to highlight the role of social and cultural imagination in how our present understanding has been shaped, Jasanoff made a powerful plea for history. How we deal with our current situation depends on our ability to learn, not from disaster, but by building on what is to what is to come. We must not forget all we have learned before. She suggested that the resources that can help us to learn are the scientific spirit itself, common law and human history. All provide incremental approaches to learning, rather than radical paradigm shifts or discontinuities. The heart of science, Jasanoff reminded us – if left to its own devices – is incremental, provisional and skeptical.

Media artist Atteqa Malik from the Karachi collective Mauj had, the day before, pointed out that most people in Pakistan will not respond to calls for action for a notion of ‘climate change’ when what they are experiencing are more immediate problems of water shortages. Whether these are partly linked or not  – and in many parts of the world water shortages are as much to do with political and commercial structures and misguided decisions around technological systems – the point she was making is that we have to look at what people’s life concerns are. The way to engage people, as Jasanoff said, is not by talk about survival but by talking about life and living.

Other highlights of my visit to Transmediale were Petko Dourmana‘s Post Global Warming Survival Kit, which entailed entering a pitch-black room with a handheld night vision device, at first thinking the room is occupied only by an old caravan and then gradually discovering the landscape around, in fact a rather optimistic take on a post-apocalyptic vision, because clearly we are still living; and the film On the Third Planet from the Sun by Russian film-maker Pavel Medvedev, which followed people living in the Arkhangelsk region of Northern Russia 45 years after the test of the hydrogen bomb there, who live hard but cheerful lives, recycling the remains of fallen space rockets that were launched from a nearby base. Middle-aged men scavenge for space junk in the swamps, and teenagers gather debris and turn it into disco balls and strobe lights for their parties. Third Planet is a striking visual exploration of environmental destruction and the rebirth of a community.

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