Risk Assessment

Pondi Unleashed Bulleteers, south India

I have nervously watched the institutionalised mayhem of Indian traffic for years, ‘safely’ as a passenger: India has the highest number of annual traffic incidents in the world. This year I actively took part – in Pondicherry I rented a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’. Old style, heavy, single-cylinder 350cc: lovely motorbike design dating from the year I was born.

Joining the traffic in the Bullet taught me many lessons – no helmet is better (improves peripheral vision); check the fuel tank (we pushed it down dusty roads for a kilometre the first day); it’s a delicate balance between assertion and deference in Indian traffic, and almost every Indian out-asserted me. Ananth Gopal was the perfect pillion passenger: balanced, navigating, laughing. Risk is broadened on a motorbike: Ananth, me, the people on the bikes next to me I might bump, pedestrians… It is all about flow: after ten days it was just exhilarating to negotiate insanely crowded intersections and nudge through crowded marketplaces. Continue reading

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

Bee poop, BBQ corn and a Burundian community in search of farmland: reflections from fieldwork in Australia’s Sunraysia Region

Post by Olivia Dun & Natascha Klocker

It’s been over a year since we started working on the project Exploring culturally diverse perspectives on Australian environments and environmentalism. The project is funded by the Australian Research Council and also includes our colleagues Lesley Head, Gordon Waitt and Heather Goodall. So far this project has prompted us to think about Australian landscapes, agriculture and back/front-yard spaces in new ways. Farmer_Olivia blogOur work on the project primarily centres on the town of Robinvale and the rural city of Mildura within the Sunraysia region. This region spans a corner of north-western Victoria and south-western New South Wales united by the Murray River and the possibility of irrigated agriculture. We were drawn to the Sunraysia because one third of horticulturalists in the region speak a language other than English at home (Missingham et al. 2006). The Sunraysia is also host to diverse horticultural industries including table grapes, dried fruit, citrus, almonds, olives, carrots, avocado and asparagus, accounting for much of the national supply of these crops. Our aim is to explore the contributions that ethnically diverse residents make to farming in this region – through their labour, businesses and growing practices.

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On One Breath

Flying in to the Big Island of Hawai’i, the two largest volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, are capped with snow and surrounded by an aureola of clouds. Driving east to west across the island between the volcanoes, I pass through several climatic zones and multiple ecosystems. The journey takes me from the wet, windward eastern side to the much drier lee coast on the west.

It’s my second time on a tropical archipelago in a few months. In February I accompanied ten UOW undergraduates to India’s Andaman Islands for our pilot iteration of GEOG334 ‘Geographies of Change: International Fieldwork’. A great trip with a fantastic group of students – fun, resilient and very hard-working. Relevant to this research blog because each student completed their first ever independent research project while there, ranging from studying the territorial behaviour of damsel fish, to a detailed supply chain analysis of everything we ate. Great work.

apneista

The Apneista team, Indonesia (http://apneista.com/)

But I’m in Hawai’i to continue research on freediving, which I started last year in Indonesia. Freediving, or breath-hold diving, is at once a commonplace and unique form of engagement between humans and oceans. Continue reading

Fieldwork food

Written by Lesley Head, with culinary and photographic contributions by Natascha Klocker, Olivia Dun, Ananth Gopal, Sophie-May Kerr and Lulu.

There are few things more important to successful fieldwork than food. It sustains the bodies and the community of the fieldwork team. It provides points of connection with the broader community. And in our current project on Exploring culturally diverse perspectives on Australian environments, it is an important dimension of the research itself. We are currently in the Sunraysia region of Victoria (around Robinvale and Mildura), where irrigated agriculture provides an abundance of late summer food choices. In the midst of such abundance there are puzzles and challenges – people who don’t have enough to eat, farmers who don’t eat their own produce, and widespread concerns over pesticide use and the changing political economy of Australian food. Here are some moments in our food journey so far. Continue reading

Fieldnotes from Christchurch: ‘A wonderful disaster’

I visited Christchurch in New Zealand recently. This is the second largest city in the country, and one that has been dealing with the after effects of a series of major earthquakes which first struck almost 5 years ago. The impact of the quakes is most visible in the centre of the city. A great deal of the city’s buildings were damaged and had to be pulled down. I hadn’t visited the city for some 15-odd years but was unable to make any sense of the city from memory.

The view inside the 'Red Zone'

The view inside the ‘Red Zone’

The quakes have had a raft of impacts on people living in Christchurch – apart from damaged buildings that is. There were service disruptions, housing shortages, work relocations and, of course the psychological impacts. Financially the quake has taken a toll, both for individuals but also the country. The estimated cost has ballooned to over NZ$40 billion making it New Zealand’s costliest natural disaster. And, interestingly, it’s the third costliest earthquake (nominally) worldwide – apparently New Zealand has a high rate of building insurance.

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Fieldnotes: 3D Printshow London

While I have been aware of 3D printing it’s just been a cursory interest – I haven’t paid it too much attention. So when I was shoulder tapped to help out with some field interviews at a 3D print expo in London I thought I’d go along as it might be interesting, though not because I thought it’d be particularly relevant to my own research. I was wrong.

3D Prinshow London

The floor – 3D Prinshow London

The 3D Printshow is an expo organised in cities around the world – London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Dubai, Mexico and others – to showcase applications and developments in 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is also known. The one in London just happened to be on while I was there doing some fieldwork of my own. The show ran over three days at the beginning of September, catering to everyone from your simple back-room tinkerer to your industry heavyweight. Held in a large display space in the heart of the City of London, the show was packed with stands, exhibits and talks that ran throughout the three days.

The reason for being there was part of an exploratory project funded by University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program investigating the potential of 3D printing in reenergising manufacturing in the Illawarra, being undertaken by Thomas Birtchnell, Robert Gorkin and Chantel Carr. Continue reading

Embodiment in Miami – final thoughts from America

Post by Nick Skilton

America is a bewildering place. The best and worst of everything. Sometimes it’s difficult to pull the whole scenario together into a comprehensible picture. You can grasp at the edges. Make mosaics out of fragments. Recall all the pop culture you’ve ever accumulated and attempt to overlay it upon reality. Doing so, certain nonsensical things begin to make sense, like American patriotism for ‘the greatest country in the world’. There is a lot to like about it. But there is a lot that isn’t great. For example, the real poverty and hardship of living with a minimum wage less than $10/hour. It’s a beautiful place visually, but sometimes life isn’t pretty. This is what confronts me in Miami, 8th most populous city in America. After 2 days, I have no idea what to make of this town. It’s too big and weird. The only way I am able to write about it, is to tweeze apart the layers and concentrate on one striking aspect of this place: Bodies. The differences in bodies were remarkably different on each day, almost dichotomous in nature. Hence I have attempted to write as such. Continue reading

When The Saints Go Marching In NOLA

Post written by Nick Skilton

It’s a weird thing to fall in love with a place, but that is what has happened. I have fallen in love with New Orleans. What does that mean exactly? Is it the way that a place makes you feel? Is it the people you connect with that give life to the place? Is it the opportunity that a place represents? Is this a ‘gut feeling’? There is obviously no one answer to that question. It is likely a combination of those things, and many more included. Trying to articulate the connections, opportunities, and gut feelings associated with loving a place in any meaningful kind of way, especially a place as chaotic as New Orleans, is part of the same impossible tragedy as describing any other kind of love (and better writers than me have failed at describing love). I’m not even the first writer from AUSCCER this month to make an attempt to uncover the words that will describe the ‘rawness’ and the ‘mesmerising’ engagement with this place. What this is then is an oratory, an attempt to tell New Orleans what made it so impressive, so beautiful, and so compelling. Continue reading

Known unknowns in New Orleans

“Come on, honey! I need to get laid”, echoes through the hallways of the old building, as I close the door wondering if ‘hotel’ is the right description for the establishment I have just checked in to in New Orleans. As it turns out, these are the parting words of the disappointed woman, as the hotel’s black bouncer escorts her off the premises. The sound of her stiletto heels taps down the street – unevenly.

Later that same afternoon, I once again have the indirect company of the bouncer. As I scribble notes in one corner of the shaded courtyard, he sits in another corner quietly reading aloud one word after another from an English dictionary. Within the first hours of my visit to New Orleans, I am witness to the racial, class and educational divides that Hurricane Katrina brought so brutally to the fore in 2005, as New Orleans first fought to stay alive and then faced the mammoth task of rebuilding the hurricane ravaged city. Continue reading