Art, air and ideas in the Anthropocene: field notes from Berlin

Within the space of a week my world has been inverted. From experiencing unseasonably warm autumnal days on Australia’s east coast I’ve been transported to a cool spring in eastern Germany where the daytime highs are half the night-time lows from where I’ve come. Just before dawn the air temperature is a little above freezing, and I’m now wearing all the clothes I’m travelling with, standing on an old airfield just south of central Berlin. The sun has not long risen and its rays are only just beginning to find their way over the tops of buildings and trees. Huddling with others, also gathered here on the field, we intuitively position ourselves in patches of growing sunlight, warming ourselves from the early morning chill.

I’ve come to Berlin to be a a part of an extended workshop bringing together some 120 or more scholars, researchers and artists interested in issues that the Anthropocene concept exposes. This is the second ‘campus’ that the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Culture) in Berlin has organised, with this one focused on investigating the idea of the ‘Technosphere.’ As part of a workshop we have been invited here, to Tempelhofer Feld, an airfield used until only recently and now a recreational reserve, to participate in the launching of some artistic sculptures by Berlin-based artist Tomás Saraceno. Saraceno’s work grapples with Anthropocenic issues and today we will have first-hand experience with some of this work – large sun-powered lighter-than-air membranes – what he terms aerosolar sculptures.

Gathering at dawn for the aerosolar launch, Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin.

Gathering at dawn for the aerosolar launch, Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin.

Put more simply, these are large balloons fuelled only by the warmth of the sun which, warming the internal air air of the structures, has the potential to power it indefinitely. This removes the device from the grip of petrochemical power – both physically and politically. And for Saraceno these sculptures – indeed the wider aerosolar project – provoke a rethinking of our engagement with energy, elemental forces, space and each other:
To become aerosolar is to imagine a metabolic and thermodynamic transformation of human societies’ relation with both the Earth and the Sun.  It is an invitation to think of new ways to move and sense the circulation of energy. And, it is a scalable process to re-pattern atmospheric dwelling and politics through an open-source ecology of practices, models, data—and a sensitivity to the more-than-human world. (Saraceno, Engelmann and Szerszynski 2015)

But more than just a piece of conceptual art, aerosolar experiments take different forms. One configuration – Museo Aero Solar – is a large aerosolar membrane fashioned from everyday plastic bags and contributed to by different groups in different locations around the world. Indeed by taking the simple idea out into the world – into communities and inviting people to engage with the making process (the materials required are in their basic form plastic bags, sticking tape and sunshine) engages people with the concept in more everyday ways. And at the same time – in its simplicity – they are an iteration of the sociality it calls attention to: a networked, social and ultimately less hierarchical model that might operate both spatially and politically.

At its core the project is one of reimagining; reimagining how we might do things differently in light of the intractable problems we face at the seeming culmination of the modern project. In Anthropocenic terms, if we consider the Technosphere to be the assemblage of material and immaterial technologies that envelop the surface of the planet, this project inserts a wedge into this to open up other ways of configuring technology and resultantly our relationships with others entities – both human and other.

Nurturing the balloons for flight

Nurturing the balloons for flight

Back on the ground, I’m reminded of the kind of attention that this activity calls for. Working with these simple and abundant elements – air and sunlight – calls for a close attentiveness to conditions. The weather, of course, is a key determinant. Having sunlight is necessarily determined by the presence – or not – of clouds. The amount of wind also impacts the viability of launch – as well as determining trajectories of travel; and the reason for the dawn scheduling is because this time of day often best provides still atmospheric conditions. Indeed we have been blessed with a clear and still morning for this launch.

The impact of such attentiveness has two particular outcomes. Firstly, it is an ongoing attunement to elemental conditions; and enhanced awareness of the environmental conditions – weather in relation to season, also geography, but also an understanding of how different elemental conditions impact the activity. What comes with this reliance on conditions of environment is the requirement for patience and timing. One has to wait for the right conditions; there is no guarantee that they will occur when you want them, and indeed no way to induce them. They require you to wait; to have an understanding that your own desire to act must yield to agencies beyond human control. In a sense you must learn to be humble; to relinquish the ability to control.

Waiting – an integral part of the experience

Waiting – an integral part of the experience

And, as we wait in the warming sun there is a bustling of activity on this now disused runway. The conditions have been deemed suitable for launch, and two nylon membranes are unpacked and the process of inflating these takes place. The procedure for filling these with air appears to be – rather simply – trailing them behind someone running. If nothing it is effective. Once inflated these structures have the appearance of gigantic otherworldly creatures. They sit, after their initial expansion, grounded. As the surrounding air begins to warm, it gently stirs these creatures making them seem somehow alive. And over the next hour I’m interested to watch the amount of attention these gentle structures require in being nursed to life. They are well attended; inspected and adjusted, as they prepare for activity. The process is highly tactile. There is much touching, stroking, prodding and adjusting, I assume providing feedback on things like temperature and pressure. This technology, with its relationship to elemental forces and its sensitivity to conditions calls for a nurturing disposition, and a continued attentiveness to conditions as they change.

What comes to mind is ideas of ‘working with’ – with elements, conditions, currents – which has sensibilities of eastern philosophy, notably Taoism. One has to be able to let go thoughts of expectation, to be patient, to let go a certain human desire to control. Critical Anthropocene scholarship points to fundamental flaws in modernist thinking, and suggests this needs serious rethinking. Simply, we need new and different models for understanding and engaging with the world – quite differently, and less on our own terms.

Artist Tomás Saraceno tests the lift potential in one of the sculptures

Artist Tomás Saraceno tests the lift potential in one of the sculptures

The Aerocene project makes some wild suggestions: aerosolar travel, aerosolar communities, aerosolar space exploration. These are best not to be taken as practical proposals. Rather, I read them as design fictions: imaginative proposals which aid us in thinking more wildly about future possibilities. What makes these proposals slightly more intriguing is that the technology they employ is actually simple, practical and real – it’s not based on some yet-to-be-invented configuration.

But, rather than seeing these as end points, the real point is in experimenting with the ideas that these technologies and ideas open up. For example, there has been a recent collaboration with the Red Cross/Red Crescent which is exploring the use of aersolar technology to launch camera payloads to map disaster affected areas. My designer mind appreciates seeing artistic ideas taken into the world and finding distinctly practical application.

At its heart the Aerocene project shows that simple ideas have the potential to have large impacts; and these can be driven by different kinds of sensibilities than we are used to. In the same vein it avoids the trap of trying to offer solutions. Rather its proposals open up possibilities and stimuli for novel thinking about how it might well be applied. In the context of considering the implications of the Anthropocene and navigating new and different pathways through this, the provocations of the Aerocene help spur us to consider the possibilities provided by the potential of the very air around us.

Aerosolar launch 5

A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon – full-immersion methodologies

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For the last few years I have been approaching research using ‘full-immersion’ methodologies: ‘the method that requires investigators to become, as completely as possible, that which they wish to understand’ (Desmond 2011,  drawing on Wacquant 2004 – thanks to Christine Eriksen for drawing my attention to Desmond’s phrase). Consequently, my work on hunting (Adams 2013, Adams 2014, and another forthcoming this year) required me to acquire a firearm and appropriate licences and learn to hunt – to become a hunter.

Currently, I am following this approach with freediving research. Continue reading

UOW HuGS celebrates its 1st birthday! A reflection on 12 months of achievements

Gallery

This gallery contains 12 photos.

Today marks the exciting milestone of the UOW Human Geography Society’s (HuGS) first birthday!! I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the past 12 months, recap our events so far, share the experiences of some … Continue reading

Who makes your clothes?

A clearer picture is emerging of the impacts of the fashion industry.

It is now known to be the second most polluting industry in the world, only after oil.

Where do your clothes come from?

Where do your clothes come from?

The production of fabric and textiles consumes large amounts of water and energy, and creates huge volumes of waste.

It is responsible for countless human and non-human social and ethical violations.

It is an industry that affects us every single day.

Each year Fashion Revolution Week (18-24th April 2016) brings people from all over the world together to use the power of fashion to change the story for the people who make the world’s clothes.

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AAG Conference 2016 San Francisco – AUSCCER Program

AAGAssociation of American Geographers’ Conference

San Francisco

29 March – 2 April

 

Next week, 15 AUSCCERites will be attending the annual Association of American Geographers conference in cool but sunny San Franciso (have those jackets ready!).

AUSCCER’s academics and PhD candidates will be sharing their latest work, including research into:

  • food and household sustainability
  • geographies of making
  • freediving
  • community gardens
  • shared living spaces in the city
  • assemblages of mobility
  • anxieties of distant labour
  • gender and wildfire

A list of AUSCCER presentations, panel and discussion sessions can be found below.

If you’re not attending the AAG, you can follow the conversation via twitter using #AAG2016 or AUSCCERites’ twitter handles (see below).

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Conversations on using assemblage thinking in geography

Conversations on using assemblage thinking in geography

Institute of Australian Geographers Annual Conference, Adelaide

June 29th – July 1st 2016

Call for Papers

Session Organisers: Carrie Wilkinson and Ryan Frazer, University of Wollongong

 

Geographers are increasingly interested in the possibilities afforded by thinking through assemblage. It appears to be fast becoming an essential addition to the geographer’s toolkit. At its most general, assemblage provides a way of accounting for the ordering of heterogeneous phenomena into a provisional whole. The promise of assemblage, as Müller writes, is a radical “rethinking [of] the relations between power, politics and space from a more processual, socio-material perspective” (2015, p.27). It offers a way of conceptualising forms as they gather, cohere, fracture, and disperse within an always immanent ontology. Continue reading

Children, youth and families living in the city

Institute of Australian Geographers Annual Conference, Adelaide

June 29th – July 1st 2016

Call for Papers

Session Sponsors: Cultural Geography Study Group

Session Organisers: Susannah Clement and Kiera Kent, University of Wollongong

What is a child friendly city? How do families create space in the city? How might we include the experiences of young people and families in research?

This IAG session focuses on the everyday experiences of children, youth and families living in urban areas. This session aims to show the diversity of children, youth and family geography research coming from Australian and international contexts.

Where do the children play. Children play at darling Harbour in the spiral fountain. Photo Brendan Esposito smh,news,021207

Where do the children play in the city? Photo: Brendan Esposito

As Cloke and Jones (2005) argue, children are often positioned as problematic in urban (adult) spaces because they challenge the boundaries placed on them and create disorder. Work by Children’s Geographers (e.g. Holloway & Valentine 2000; Matthews & Limb 1999) have engaged with the ‘New Social Studies of Childhood’, which Continue reading

Responding to the ‘refugee crisis’: critical geographies and the politics of support

RGS-IBG ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE 2016

Royal Geographical Society, London

30th August – 3rd September 2016

Call for Papers

 

Responding to the ‘refugee crisis’: critical geographies and the politics of support

Session Organisers: Jonathan Darling (University of Manchester) and Ryan Frazer (University of Wollongong)

 

The last year has seen political and popular discussions of migration dominated by a language of ‘crisis’ and emergency response. From the ongoing securitisation of the Calais freight terminal, to the production of new border walls in Europe, policies on migration over the last year have focused on extending trends of extraterritorial exclusion, political distancing, and the deferral of moral responsibility. Yet at the same time, the mass movement of refugees witnessed in Europe has raised profound questions over the desirability, and effectiveness, of these responses.

Syrian refugees strike at the platform

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, Hungary, 4 September 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov.

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Making space for writing: geography and research writing

RGS-IBG ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE 2016
Royal Geographical Society, London

30th August – 3rd September 2016

Call for Papers

Making space for writing: geography and research writing

Sponsored by the Higher Education Research Group of the RGS-IBG

Session Organisers: Rae Dufty-Jones (Western Sydney University) and Chris Gibson (University of Wollongong)

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Space, Entitlement and Spectacle at New Orleans Jazzfest

by Nick Skilton, Peta Wolifson & Shaun McKiernan

(Enjoying slushies earlier in the day before things got crazily crazy.)

(Enjoying slushies earlier in the day before things got crazily crazy.)

Last year, three geography postgraduate students attended a music festival in the birthplace of jazz. This is what they found…

A Summary of the Day: Nick and Shaun

The Jazz and Heritage Festival is a big deal in New Orleans (NOLA). I don’t think we realised how big a deal until we were submerged in a sea of sweat, smuggled spirits, and sound. But we’ll get to that. ‘NOLA Jazzfest’ as it commonly known has grown from its humble beginnings in 1970 when 350 people attended. On that day, Duke Ellington, The Preservation Hall Band, Fats Domino, and Mahalia Jackson (who was not booked, but simply heard about the Festival and showed up to sing), plus many others performed. In 2015, 460,000 punters turned up over the 10 days (2 weekends with the week in between), the largest attendance since Hurricane Katrina. Miserable weather on the first weekend however saw to it that the second weekend accommodated the bulk of that number but random locals we encountered in the following days claimed (since the organisers now no longer release daily attendance figures) that the Saturday that we attended may have rivalled the 2001 single day record of 160,000 attendees when Dave Matthews Band and Mystikal performed during the peak of their powers. Anyway, you get the picture. It was packed.

(It looks small but it’s really not. However, still not big enough for Saturday’s crowd.)

(It looks small but it’s really not. However, still not big enough for Saturday’s crowd.)

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