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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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