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

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

A stranger in Bangalore: reflections from the field

As I prepared to present my Indian work at the Relational Landscapes of Urbanisation Conference at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp, I reflected on interactions with research participants. I visited Bangalore in January to scope out community gardens for future fieldwork.  With a research assistant I visited several communities of gardeners who were very eager to share their thoughts and show us around. Their enthusiasm made me think about what it means to be an outsider as a researcher and about how to be considerate in an unfamiliar environment.
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Caught in the net of life and time: hunting

Last week Meanjin published an essay of mine. The tagline they used was ‘Michael Adams reflects on the relationships between hunters and their prey’. The Guardian has just reprinted it in their Comment section. The essay explores modern hunting, with some of it focusing on my own hunting. My thinking continues to evolve on these issues, and recent media indicates they continue to be important and controversial. Continue reading

Seeking households for Warm as Toast project

Do you have some form of central heating or reverse cycle air conditioning at home? If so, please consider being part of a University of Wollongong research project called Warm as toast? Home heating and energy use in the Illawarra. We seek households who are willing to discuss their home heating practices and energy use, and have their household electricity measured over approximately three months over winter 2014.

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PhD Scholarship – environmental knowledge and practice of migrant food growers

Project title: Exploring the environmental knowledges and practices of migrant food growers in urban and peri-urban NSW

$AU25,392 per year (3 years max)

A fully-funded PhD scholarship worth $AU25,392 per year, for three years, is available in the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research, Department of Geography and Sustainable Communities at the University of Wollongong. The project is entitled: ‘Exploring the environmental skills, knowledges and practices of migrant food growers in urban and peri-urban NSW’. The successful candidate will explore these practices in the context of broader discussions of sustainability and climate change adaptation.

The project is funded by University of Wollongong in association with an Australian Research Council Discovery Project awarded to Professor Lesley Head, Dr Natascha Klocker, Professor Gordon Waitt and Professor Heather Goodall. It is anticipated that the successful applicant will enrol by August 2014.

The PhD project is to examine the diverse food growing practices of migrants across formal and informal spaces in Sydney and the Illawarra including market gardens, community gardens, backyards and public spaces. It will consider how migrants’ diverse environmental knowledges, experiences in countries of origin, understandings of Australian environments and perceptions of climate change inform their food growing practices. The successful student will be responsible for conducting research with migrant food growers using a range of qualitative social scientific fieldwork methods. Funds are available to support research and field expenses.

Applications are sought from suitably qualified candidates with a First Class Honours Degree, and/or a Masters by Research degree in human geography, environmental social science, anthropology or related disciplines. Applicants will need to demonstrate research training as is evident in a substantial thesis characterised by primary research. Ability to speak a language other than English (which the applicant could show is relevant to migrant food growers in Sydney) would be an advantage, but is not essential.

Applicants should initially submit a letter outlining their suitability for this research and the nature of their research training and any thesis completed as part of their study so far, a CV, and academic transcripts for all degrees.

Send these documents to Professor Lesley Head at the email address below by 30th May 2014. Please ensure that all documents are contained in one single pdf file.

The successful applicant will be enrolled in a PhD in Human Geography at the University of Wollongong, supervised by Dr Natascha Klocker and Professor Lesley Head.

The scholarship is open to Australian and International applicants.

For further information about the project, please contact Professor Lesley Head lhead@uow.edu.au

Further information about the Department of Geography and Sustainable Communities and AUSCCER can be found via:

http://socialsciences.uow.edu.au/ausccer/index.html

http://socialsciences.uow.edu.au/dgsc/index.html

Questioning the legality of forced evacuations during the Red October bushfires

In the aftermath of the recent State Mine Fire in the Blue Mountains, my team at UOW revisited interview participants who were initially interviewed mid-2013 on their preparedness for bushfire. The State Mine Fire provided a unique opportunity to investigate if their preparations withstood the attack.

During one interview, a participant vented his frustration with police orders to evacuate his property, as he was well-prepared to face the fire. He candidly asked me if legally he had to follow such an order when the ‘Prepare. Act. Survive.‘ policy guides people on how to prepare their property in order to stay and defend it. I promised to get back to him with an answer, as I needed to get my facts straight first. I sought the advice of a barrister and academic colleague at the ANU College of Law, Dr Michael Eburn who specialises in emergency law.

Extent of the NSW State Mine Fire

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Layers of heritage

I have been fortunate enough on the last two weekends to visit two world heritage areas, the Bronze Age rock art of the Tanum area in Bohuslän, and the mediaeval town of Visby, on the Baltic island of Gotland. The Gotland visit was part of a field trip with old colleagues from the Landscape Science program at Kristianstad University, where I worked in 2005-06. A nine day field trip underpins the second year subject Svenska Landskap. It is described as a smörgåsbord of landscapes – a quick taste of many different things. Intensive or block teaching is standard in many Swedish universities, with students concentrating on one subject completely for five weeks.

Seeing with a bus. Photo: L. Head

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Digging up the agency of soil

Post written by Charles Gillon

Approaching the world from a relational ontology creates the impetus to explore complex entanglements between human and nonhuman, and challenge pre-given conceptions of how we live. To this end, I ask here whether a patchy lawnscape can work towards unveiling the agency of soil.

My Honours thesis, conducted last year, focussed on exploring a series of everyday human/nonhuman interactions in a rural residential estate (RRE). The RRE is an emerging form of master-planned estate (MPE) within Sydney’s greater metropolitan region, comprised of sizeable private lots interspersed with rural amenities; community facilities, remnant bushland, and productive land uses. The aim of this study was to see whether living in an RRE – where there is a more obvious presence of nonhumans than in suburban counterparts – was conducive to a more convivial relationship with the living environment and its myriad of nonhuman residents.

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Words and weeds in Sweden

Late summer landscape at Vrångö, in Göteborg’s southern archipelago.

I am back in Göteborg (Gothenburg) as Visiting Professor in the Unit for Human and Economic Geography at the University of Gothenburg. Each time I visit Sweden for a prolonged period, I try to do something systematic to improve, or at least regain, my limited Swedish. On this visit I opted for an intensive course. It was hard work; I haven’t thought about subordinate clauses for more than forty years, and learning vocab is much harder for me than it was then. Many people express surprise at this use of my time, since English is the second language of operation of Swedish academic life. All my colleagues here have to publish in English in order to establish an international reputation, and they speak and write English to a very high level. I don’t anticipate that I will ever be able to have an academic conversation in Swedish.

So why would I bother? Continue reading