Friday, August 29, 2008

no gunns blazing

ABC News Radio this morning reported that Gunns is having trouble finding financial backers for its proposed pulp mill in Tasmania's Tamar valley, following the withdrawal of the ANZ bank earlier this year. Gunns apparently admitted that the pulp mill might never be built. One can only hope!

The Wilderness Society is continuing to raise awareness of the significance of the region and the detrimental effects the mill would have on the environment. According to the radio report, there is concern that the forestry industry in the region might collapse if the mill isn't built. How long could the industry log the region before its resources were exhausted and the industry collapsed in the region anyway? Long enough for the loggers' children to have trees to fell?

Its interesting how the Wilderness Society is now approaching the need for conservation of these forests. With climate change on the agenda the forests' utility as a Carbon sink is coming to the fore. This new angle of attack would have had no impact 10 years ago. Times have changed.

The Ecologies Project - Monash Uni. Museum of Art

17 September 2008 - 22 November 2008

Opening function: Saturday 20 September 2008, 2pm
Curators: Geraldine Barlow and Dr Kyla McFarlane

Pre-opening curator's talk
Saturday 20 September at 1.30pm

Opening function
Saturday 20 September at 2.00pm
Monash University Museum of Art, Clayton Campus
With opening remarks at 2:45pm
by Professorial Fellow John Thwaites, Chairman of the Monash Sustainability Institute, and Former Deputy Victorian Premier and Minister for Environment, Water and Climate Change

What is this project that we are now undertaking, as we globally seek a new balance with the ecological systems that sustain us?

Will endgame, apocalyptic visions drive change, or can our wonder in the natural world inspire the creation of a brighter future?

Artists have long drawn inspiration from nature, as well as being advocates for a sustainable relationship between humanity and the environment. Now that a need for change has become broadly accepted, what role for art? Even with this accepted impetus to action, the particular paths we might take are unclear. It is an exciting and unsettling time as we sit between the darkest and most hopeful of futures. We must grapple with a myriad of abstract and interconnected systems, economic, environmental, social and philosophical. At this moment in time, art offers a lens through which we can examine the world as well as a kind of metaphorical thinking that can sharpen our perception of the relation between these complex parts and their impact on a dynamic whole. The Ecologies Project includes work by 40 artists exploring issues of sustainability, climate change and the idea of ecology as both form and metaphor.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

mind the gap: animated data

Hans Rosling, professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, gives an animated talk employing animated data on the TED website. In addition to the demonstration of his very cute data-visualisation software, Trendalyzer, the talk discusses the relationships between a nation's child mortality rates, GDP, family size and various other values. Some surprising (to me anyway) trends from the last 40 years of worldwide development are revealed. In particular, there does seem to be a global upturn in health as measured by these simple statistics. The spread of wealth seems to be flattening across the nations, and the health and wealth of the "developing world" is approaching that of the West. However when viewing statistics within each country, similar trends are not necessarily present, the divide between haves and have-nots remains.

More information on the software and associated projects is available from Rosling's not-for-profit organisation, Gapminder. A quick play reveals Australia is up there with Japan and Switzerland amongst the very top few nations for life expectancy. As individuals we don't quite have the material wealth of some other countries (e.g. Luxembourg!), but we seem to live a couple of years longer. We also emit a lot of CO2. I wonder if data is available to compare the number of stadia, museums and art galleries, theatres and concert halls per capita between countries. Just curious.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

bicycle vibrations - james angus

By a strange, circuitous route, I just discovered this exhibition record at Roslyn Oxley galleries, Bicycles 2007 by Australian artist James Angus.

...I'm yet to see one of these lovely bikes in the flesh (there is an orange machine with drop-bars at the Ian Potter gallery for the Basil-Sellers prize) but if the photographs are anything to go by they are marvelous sculptures. Not one bicycle, but three, or two? Or is it one bicycle that has been abused by a few too many road vibrations? Perhaps it is shaking its soul free. Perhaps I have had too much to drink. Its hard to tell what these feel like from photographs alone so I will wait until I visit the exhibition before I write anything much about the work.

I wonder at the artist's choice of seat cluster. By attaching the seat-stays so low on the seat tube the elegance of the traditional dual-triangle frame is compromised. This is especially noticeable when contrasted against the smooth lines of the drop bars on the sculpture entered for the Sellers prize. I can only assume the choice is a deliberate attempt to sculpturally dislocate the machine. What lively and seductive sculptures! I wonder if I could get a ride on one? :-)

Monday, August 25, 2008

middle-class ruins

My favourite suburban architecture is the "middle-class ruin". There are a few gems around although they are becoming scarce as developers take hold. Once lovely weather-board homes have been left to fade in middle-class leafy streets. Their elderly occupants do likewise as the lawn threatens to swallow them and their decrepit, unpainted coffins whole.

Not far from my house one of these is piled under tons of scrap metal, old fence posts and palings, rusty car doors and broken garden furniture. If the house wasn't positioned prominently on a slope overlooking the street, the entire block would look like a junk yard. Instead the house, its balcony crammed to the rafters with detritus, displays its face to the middle-class street. It defies the trim lawns and designer landscape gardens, the ecologically sound architecture with four-wheel drive tanks parked in the driveways to lodge a complaint.

In the wilderness between my home and work a derelict building site for a dream home lies frozen at the moment the money ran out. Neatly stacked timber and bricks are succumbing to dandelions, uncut grass and ivy. Kids have smashed the windowpanes and scrawled tags on the rendered walls. Bright fingers of electrical wiring emerge from a hole in the eaves over the front door. Are they clutching at the space where a light fitting was supposed to be?

An abandoned swimming pool. Its blue paint is cracking and peeling. Slimy black sludge has collected at the deep end. A few straggly weeds are sprouting here too. In spring they'll flower into pretty, white daisies. Is that the corpse of a possum or a cat down there?

There are places even in Melbourne's suburban sprawl where the imagination can roam free.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

library of dust

In keeping with the themes of biology and decay, I stumbled on a post (on BLDG BLOG) about a book, Library of Dust. The book is a collection of photographs of unclaimed, cremated human remains from a psychiatric hospital — compacted and tinned humans, stored like corn and beans on a supermarket shelf!

Unlike the bones of the catacombs beneath Paris or the ossuary of Sedlec, the human form of the remains has been completely obliterated. Whilst the bones of Paris and Sedlec have been jumbled, these human remains have been kept separate from one another. Each can of ashes leaves its unique, visible mark on the world through the patterns of corrosion on its surface. The ex-patients may have been tinned and stacked, but they regain a unique identity in a most unlikely way. Library of Dust is a strange, visually arresting and thought provoking record of people past.

Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

athletics, Muybridge and the red queen

Shot type 1: Its over 100 years since Muybridge's death and I find myself glued to the television to appreciate an idea that originated with him. The Olympic Games have been two weeks of the most beautiful pictures of human physiology I have ever seen. My favourite shot is certainly the slow motion tracking camera that follows alongside a sprint or gymnastic tumble.
I first consciously appreciated this shot as the final sprint in the Tour de France exploded along the Champs Elysées a few years ago. The lens does not distort the perspective as it would when using a distant telephoto. The angle remains fixed. The background tears past at a terrifying rate, the cyclists are trapped in the frame like the Red Queen, legs ablaze, faces straining, backs arched before a final throw for the line. And the whole thing can be repeated at a fraction of race pace so that you can take it all in: muscles ripple, sweat collects on noses and jaws before gracefully lifting from the grimacing face to glide away and off-screen.
The same shot applied to athletics, especially the 100m sprint, reveals the wealth of detail Muybridge captured. The form of a top class runner is a gorgeous sight that can best be appreciated in this slow motion tracking shot. The technique allows the repetition of the cycle to be appreciated. For just short of fifty paces the best runners maintain a fluidity that belies the effort it requires. In less than 10 seconds the race is all over, the medals are decided, the athletes are ecstatic and bounce around, or they are shattered and collapse in tears on the track. Years of effort to produce 10 seconds of glorious physiological poetry. Thanks, your effort is appreciated... especially by the airlines, fast-food chains. vehicle manufacturers and banks whose advertisements I had to endure... but also by the millions of other crazy people like me who tuned in to admire technology's view of the body in motion.

Shot type 2: The photo-finish is also a fascinating piece of work. In this, slices of the athletes as they cross the line are compiled into a single image with a timing scale marked along the image's edge. Lines placed on the image at the point where an athlete's chest (or front bicycle wheel) first touch the line may then be read off the timing scale to determine their time. The distorted forms of the athletes look less than elegant, but the image is a great way to reveal a winner.

Friday, August 22, 2008

artistic bicycle racks

Some amusing New York city bicycle racks designed by David Byrne are to be employed for a year and sold as art afterwards. Utilitarian "street furniture" never looked so... tacky? They're not amongst my favourites but neither are they as bad as the usual water-piping trusses found in school-yards and train stations across the world.

The stainless-steel "circle emerging from the footpath" is more a elegant design. Unfortunately like most designs it needs a long chain or cable to secure both wheels unless the rider removes the front one and locks it beside the frame and rear wheel. Is there a design that is secure, nestles the front wheel and bicycle into a situation from which they can't be removed without a key, and doesn't scratch the frame? Bike lockers are a good idea but very space-hungry and easy to hog with a single padlock, regardless of whether there is a bike inside. A better design is needed.

The Japanese have a couple of ideas that work with varying degrees of success. The supervised bike parking station, and the unsupervised footpath crammed for hundreds of meters with countless unlocked (or poorly locked) bikes. The latter option works on the principle of safety in numbers employed by fish schools and zebra herds.

foul foods of the world

I've not yet tried surströmming (fermented herring). I have tried nattō (fermented soya beans) and blue-vein cheese. Contrary to our gut feelings, they are actually good to eat. Why should we "acquire" a taste for something that our reflexes guard so strongly against? Is this a bit like the thrill of bungee-jumping? Despite all our senses telling us to refrain, we overcome our innate fear of food with reason, chew, swallow, and smile with exhilaration.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

colour and pain

It never really concerned me before if I experienced "red" in the "same way" as somebody else. Did I experience it myself in the same way from day to day? I could see why it might be interesting to contemplate this but its not something I would invest my life in wondering or writing about. But recently something of similar experiential origins has changed the way I think about perception --- pain!

The experience of chronic pain completely changes the way the world is perceived. Focusing on things outside of the body becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, and attention is directed inwards. Everything that does come "from outside" passes through a filter that renders it of such a low priority that what was dominant without the pain may become completely insignificant with it. How much of this pain originates from the injury or other problem? How much is concerned purely with the brain's response to the pain it perceives and is entangled with the sufferer's mental state (including their expectations and fear of the injury)?

Of course the whole situation is distressing also for those around the sufferer because the person they used to know no longer engages with them as expected. The sufferer becomes "a different person". Their internal state is completely altering their external appearance and interactions yet there may be no externally obvious reason for this. Outsiders simply need to rely on the pain sufferer articulating the experience and a large dose of empathy.

...and then along comes an external agent and removes the source of the pain. As if a switch was flicked the world of the former sufferer changes colour again. What has changed? It may be a physically (or chemically) tiny thing that was causing such a dramatic perceptual reconfiguration and now it is gone or mended. Or is it only that the mental state of the sufferer has gone from one of "victim" to one of "saved"?

Once pain's filter has been experienced and has ground its way into the sufferer's consciousness over time, everything outside looks slightly different. Is the red seen now the same as the red seen before the pain? Is it the same red that was seen during the pain? These appear to be three different colours. But in what sense could it be said that they are different? To what extent does previous experience change our perception of something as physical (cf. conceptual) as the present experience of colour?

I feel this demonstrates simply and clearly how wrong any artist (e.g. Kandinsky) is when attempting to discern the absolute properties of various colours. The idea is ridiculous.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

notes on monuments

Note 1. In the paper, Public Monuments, from Alan Sonfist's contribution to Artful Ecologies, University College Falmouth, 2006, pp 9-10, the artist reiterates some of his ideas from the late 60's. Specifically, he suggests that a city should erect public monuments to commemorate the natural systems that they replace. We are all familiar with memorial statues, plaques, monoliths, commemorative parks and gardens, even symbolic trees. But these are usually placed in recognition of significant human events such as wars, adventures, political careers, lives spent in service of the poor or perhaps the prior existence of an important civil building or the residence of a respected citizen. Sonfist wishes for monuments to be made for nature. Why not place a reminder of a river that has been lost? A copse of trees to commemorate a forest that was axed?

Note 2. A monument is, by definition, something that aims for the permanence of stone. The ancient Egyptians had this idea and it has been dominant right through the Greek and Roman periods, the Middle Ages and Renaissance right up until the present day. The art of sculpture took until the 20th century to overcome its obsession with monolithic forms carved from stone or cast in bronze (See Herbert Ferber, On Sculpture, 1954). On human time-scales these massive works are sturdy yet... Andy Goldsworthy remarked when observing the stone about him (documentary, Rivers and Tides, 2000), that where it has bent and buckled in its molten form, or where it has crumbled and decayed through weathering to be returned to dust and recycled by the same processes that created it, it is easy to see that even stone is fluid. A geologist works with this same fluidity on a massive scale. A rock climber recognises stone's seams and pockets, bubbles and streams at the macro level. Yet humans are short-lived and physically weak so of course stone is for us a powerful symbol.

Note 3. A planted tree has an immensity, power and above all a dignity about it that a stone monument can never have. A tree, like us, has a beginning and an end, even if these are thousands of years apart. A tree also has the active force of any organism. A tree makes a lovely symbol without the arrogance of stone. The tree retains its own identity even when used as a symbol. A stone's identity is stripped when it becomes a monument.

Note 4. The act of scratching a person's name into a cut stone as a long-term reminder of their existence, presence or passing is ancient. Have such cuts been made in living trees for as long? What is the first evidence for the practice?

(Examples: the Dig Tree in Queensland has become an icon due to the unique set of circumstances surrounding its carving. The Sister Rocks near Stawell in Victoria are an indication of just how arrogant and ugly people can be.)

Image credit: picture from Wikipedia of the (ugly!) stone monument in Royal Park to commemorate Burke and Wills' expedition departure in 1860 from the site.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

oldest tree is in sweden

The world's oldest tree, a Spruce in Sweden, has been dated at 9550 years. That's old enough to cause some reconsideration of the retreat of the ice following the last ice age.

Monday, August 18, 2008

messing with organisms

Eduardo Kac is best known for his glowing bunny but he has produced a wide range of works over the years. A quick online summary is available. The issues Kac's bio-art raises are certainly similar to those addressed on this blog. His work usually makes me queasy and I find it hard to assess the reasons for this. One is, I suspect, the blatant sensationalism and commericalism of his venture. Shades of Damien Hirst. That's an easy trap for a critic to fall into though... I don't feel it is a good reason not to be interested in his art.
Other problems I have with Kac's work are probably more important. They are not conceptually very interesting and they are not aesthetic objects of the kind I value. Splicing this and that code into organisms to see what emerges seems to me really silly and uncreative. Feeble! The results (e.g. a rabbit or a plant growing on a chess board) are aesthetically lame.

I would be more interested if his work addressed the ways in which people have engaged with genetics over millenia, for instance, through traditional breeding as applied to crops and domestic animals or livestock. Whilst there is less showmanship in engineering an apple than a glowing bunny, drawing attention to the engineering we all depend upon for our survival is more subtle and disarming than attempting to shock people with a rabbit. Why make a big deal about modern genetics? We have been manipulating genes for at least 10,000 years.

Image credit: E. Kac, Clairvoyance, biotope, 19 X 23 ", 2006

A relatively recent work of Kac's, Specimen of Secrecy About Marvelous Discoveries which was first exhibited at the Singapore Biennale in 2006, is I think more interesting than genetically tagging rabbits. His website explains,
"Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries is a series of works comprised of what Kac calls "biotopes", that is, living pieces that change during the exhibition in response to internal metabolism and environmental conditions. Each of Kac's biotopes is literally a self-sustaining ecology comprised of thousands of very small living beings in a medium of earth, water, and other materials. The artist orchestrates the metabolism of these organisms in order to produce his constantly-evolving living works."
Judging only by the online still imagery, the works look quite beautiful in a traditional, painterly, textural kind of a way. From what little I know of Kac's work this is a first. I'd love to see the works first-hand and in time-lapse to make a more informed remark. For how long are they "self-sustaining"?

The beauty of these ecosystems lies also in their conceptual underpinnings, in the pathos of an ecosystem out of context. Severed from connections with other organisms*, these displaced ecosystems have such a hopelessness about them. Rendering ecosystems as trapped living displays on a gallery's stark walls furthers our separation from nature and renders it a passive system independent of ourselves and available for capture and manipulation. Of course I expect this to be part of Kac's intention.

Is it okay to present nature in this way in order to raise our consciousness of the perspective we (or at least our culture) adopts? Probably. It seems little different to growing a garden or keeping a pet, neither of which offends my sensibilities and neither of which attempts to raise environmental concerns. Maybe this is a work by Kac I can actually appreciate!

*In the absence of any explanation, I seriously doubt substantial micro-organism exchange between the environment and these works. Please comment if you know more than I do about this. Are visitors asked to inhale and exhale onto the works?

Friday, August 15, 2008

a photographic wunderkammer

Rosamond Purcell has worked with Stephen J. Gould to produce some slightly clichéd imagery, but also some lovely interpretations of museum specimens and found objects. A slideshow of some of her photographs is available online. Some of her photos also appear in this bizarre, slightly macabre online Zymoglyphic Museum.

Image credit: Rosamond Purcell, Mole Skins From the Collection of van Heurn. From Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors, 1992.

As a fan of "traditional" natural history museums, rows of pinned insects and marvels of taxidermy displayed in dusty dioramas, any work that shows a similar fascination with historically significant museum collections is guaranteed to pique my interest. I am waiting for somebody to remark on the apparent contradiction between this fascination and my discomfort regarding Damien Hirst's acquisition of a fresh shark.

on surfaces and the superficial

Whilst it was Lin Miaoke whose face adorned the screens televising the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing, it was the voice of Yang Peiyi that emerged from the loudspeakers. One girl was not pretty enough to please the Chinese organisers, the other couldn't sing well enough.
Of course television is more about vision than sound. Newspapers can present visual information too, but sound is foreign to the medium. In an age when radio has taken a back-seat, so much of what we build and value is purely superficial. In the text Ecological Design, the authors lament that since photography and architectural magazines have become the dominant means for architects to display their wares, we have become too concerned with a building's appearance. Insufficient attention is paid to what a building is and what it does, especially where its roles in ecosystems are concerned.
Many (all?) nations bury their dirty laundry, some more so than others. Here we see China presenting the face the world deserves... a pretty face no doubt. The face the world wants to see. But not the face of the song. Would we place a pretty model on the podium in place of the less attractive athlete who actually won? Not yet.

humans and the food chain

Val Plumwood, an Australian feminist and environmentalist fell Prey to a Crocodile in 1985. Her excellent essay on the incident is well worth a read, not only as a first-hand account of the experience, but for the way in which it provoked her to consider her own role in the food chain.
As Val points out, it is easy for us to see ourselves as apart from nature when we spend our entire lives free of the threat of being eaten. Even after we have died we go to great lengths to prevent our body becoming food for others... we bury ourselves in stout boxes, beneath the level of tree roots, away from the reach of flies and insects. We place a hefty stone slab across the grave to prevent animals from digging up our remains. Contrast this to the practice of leaving criminals suspended in gibbets to become food for crows and maggots.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

ecological design

Notes on the 10th Anniversary Edition of Ecological Design, by Sim van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan. This is a terrific book that collects ideas from numerous sources into a coherent statement of how we might best rectify the mess we have gotten ourselves into. In some places it waffles a little but it is always thought-provoking and helpful.
"In many ways, the environmental crisis is a design crisis. It is a consequence of how things are made, buildings are constructed, and landscapes are used. Design manifests culture, and culture rests firmly on the foundation of what we believe to be true about the world. Our present forms of agriculture, architecture, engineering, and industry are derived from design epistemologies incompatible with nature's own. It is clear we have not given design a rich enough context. We have used design cleverly in the service of narrowly defined human interests but have neglected its relationship with our fellow creatures. Such myopic design cannot fail to degrade the living world, and, by extension, our own health." (p. 24-25)
This quote sums up the authors' approach neatly. The text proposes that human designers should not "take from nature" but that our designs should actually become a part of it by playing the same roles as organisms and ecosystems. We must ensure that the processes we employ for construction, and the structures they generate, mesh directly with nature's own processes. Everything we do must sit comfortably inside biology. So far our actions primarily degrade it.

My response to this book is therefore, "Design all things within the parameters laid down by organisms and ecosystems." That's a tough call, especially for someone whose career is based on the use of equipment that is so ecologically destructive. Green Computing? Yikes, that is a far cry from the kind of environmentalism the authors of this book champion.

radioactive and urban decay

A re-wander through the site by Elena "Kidd of Speed" reminds me of the variation in the scales of decay. The radioactive shower that Chernobyl received will last many generations. As far as
the former inhabitants and those that have chosen to die amongst the poison are concerned, too long to contemplate. The city itself is crumbling. Plants and animals are taking over, a little at a time. The website is compelling. For me it conjures up John Wyndham's Chrysalids (1955). I expect Elena is correct. Human life in the region will most likely vanish.

The view of Chernobyl given by Google maps confirms my feelings regarding maps and wilderness. I include a satellite image and a Google street map of the city to illustrate: I find the void disconcerting.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

rotting art

Damien Hirst's famous (Australian) shark in a tank, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), is of course no longer the "original". The first shark was replaced in 2006. Despite earlier attempts to maintain it, the shark had decomposed and lost its shape due to inappropriate preservation techniques. The fact that a new shark is in the tank doesn't make any important difference to the art — this isn't a case of substituting an inferior or forged artefact. Any shark will do as long as it looks powerful and threatening. In its perfectly preserved state the work deals sculpturally with the sublime.

The interesting point that the episode raises for me is the attempted halt by an artist to the natural process of decay. Its one thing to stick a shark in a tank, its quite another to attempt to preserve its menace against the ravages of time. The work is far more interesting for its failure to maintain ferocity. Not only beauty fades.

I still wonder if the sharks died for a worthwhile cause. Science and art alike take from the natural world what they will. I admire the form and the concept. But I am uncomfortable about their encapsulation in a work that destroyed the processes giving rise to both.

life and art

On the picture: "It does not harmonize with this or that environment; it harmonizes with things in general, with the universe: it is an organism" --- Gleizes & Metzinger, from ptI, Cubism, 1912.

"To begin with a 'point', which is the origin of all other forms and of which the number is unlimited, the little point is a living being possessed of many influences upon the spirit of man" --- Kandinsky, Concrete Arte, 1938.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

extra flexible cable housing

Nokon bicycle cable housing is made up of many tiny sections of Aluminium over a Teflon liner. Its supposed to be much more flexible than traditional housing, allowing you to take the cables through tight corners without increasing friction. Eric Zabel's old Telekom bike seemed to even use the stuff to route the derailleur cables from his Dura-Ace levers back underneath the handlebar tape... weird! Its been around awhile but must have remained an underground product. Anybody have any first-hand experience with the stuff?

Monday, August 11, 2008

European germs

In 2004, archaeologists in Peru found a gun-shot wound to the head killed at least one Incan during the Spaniard Pizarro's invasion of the 1530s. This is apparently the first (of many) gunshot wounds recorded in the Americas.

According to J. Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, there were many things going around more dangerous than musket shot. The Incan empire was still reeling from a bloody internal struggle arising after an epidemic of smallpox created a power vacuum. Smallpox has wiped out large populations across the globe as Europeans arrived on foreign shores and met those with no immunity. It was a major cause of death to Australian aborigines during the 1800s. Was the disease's introduction here deliberate? I can't seem to find an authoritative source. Opinions are divided.

Back to the Incas: Atahuallpa had taken control of the Incan empire but did not rule for long. With around 200 steel-armed and armoured men, some cavalry and a few (lousy but frightening) guns, Pizarro took the unprepared ruler captive and started slaughtering countless numbers of his 80,000 amassed troops. According to Spanish sources there were no Spanish casualties. Despite paying a huge ransom Atahuallpa was slaughtered. Without its figurehead, without a written history of thousands of years of conflict to fall back on for advice, with no guns or steel, even the best laid Incan rebellions were dismissed easily by Spanish troops.

Would a release of Smallpox be as deadly to us as it was to the Inca people and Australian aborigines? You bet. See Transmission potential of smallpox in contemporary populations in Nature. Plague, a fascinating and terrifying thing.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

wilderness: the edge of the map is in the middle

I've just read Shaun Tan's latest book, Tales From Outer Suburbia. Lovely! It is so strongly reminiscent of suburban Melbourne I can't help but feel Shaun was brought up down the street from me. One of my favourite stories tells of two young boys off to seek the end of the street-directory. What is beyond the edge of the map? After travelling for hours into outer, outer suburbia, past countless shopping plazas and endless suburban streets, as the sun sets they find out. I won't say what they find out, you can read the story yourself.

The edge of the map is a fascinating concept. Behind the cricket nets, the Antarctic, a secret passage, the ocean's depths. Maps don't reach everywhere. Has Google ruined this? Of course I am amazed at the technology that allows me to zoom in to satellite images from a computer anywhere in the world, or to trace a path I have followed through the wilderness or the alps. I am slightly unsettled by the view of suburban streets Google offers. It seems like every place is Google-able, even my front door and private (!?) back garden.

On more careful reflection, even Google stops somewhere. For instance, where are the web pages that a Google search doesn't find? When I search for a document using an English keyword millions of non-English pages are ignored. They lie in a document-wilderness, a hidden place or faraway space. This is true of all literature, all communication, and all ways of thinking that I am unable to interpret. All this information buzzes around my head but I am blind to it.

Whilst it may show the South Coast track in Tassie from above, Google is blind to the muddy creek crossings, the bountiful waterfalls, the massive towering gums. Google misses the subterranean drains, the hollow trees. In fact, Google Earth misses so much of the Earth. If its not on the map is it there? What is it? I'd say this is wilderness.

Wilderness then is all around us, especially under our noses. It is right in the middle of the maps we view. Wilderness lies in between things on the map, as well as off its edges. An evocative book by Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places, travels the UK in search of local wilderness. These are places that have fallen off the daily map. As people become dependent on different maps, the places unmapped become wilderness left to discover. Wilderness lies between your home and your workplace... when was the last time you stopped your car, got out, and walked around out there? I bet you travel through this wilderness every day, never stopping. Can't see wilderness? Just take a look at the end of your street.

Afterthought: If something isn't mapped but it needs looking after, who will do so? Who will look out for the unclassified organisms? The unmapped forests? Will they die a lonely, quiet death under the developer's bulldozer?

Friday, August 8, 2008

an immanent aesthetic: art -> architecture

Notes from, Andy Webster & Jon Bird, Better Living Through Electrochemistry? in Artful Ecologies, University College Falmouth, 2006, pp 121-128.

Image credit: Andy Webster, 51 Aqueous Dispersals, 2006, Viscous Solution & Air, 36”x24”.

Webster and Bird discuss G. Bateson's The Roots of Ecological Crisis. The basis of all threats to humanity’s survival are technological progress; population increase; and the prevailing values of western culture. In particular, again it is the Western notion of self as independent of environment that is called into question. Shades of Deep Ecology here.

How and what can art do to change people's values? Well, I am skeptical it can do anything apart from change the views of those who care about art. In Australia at least we are in the minority. And to make matters worse, this minority is quite likely already converted. Art might not have any impact here. I can't see art stopping the developing world from desiring to emulate the Western lifestyle either.

Webster and Bird call for immanent art that allows the materials to find their own form, rather than having form imposed by an artist in a transcendent art. Imminent art they say has, "the greatest potential to correct people’s view of their relationship with the environment".

To a large extent I feel that any artist is always "discovering" the form of a medium. Whether that be words, sound, the line, plate metal, mud-brick, computation or any other. What the authors seem to be getting at though is a desire to explore natural, physical, chemical or biological (and I add computational!) processes by letting them speak for themselves. Yet the artist must always set up the boundary conditions. I feel strongly that art is a biologically instigated intervention in the world. We can argue about the degree of control the artist maintains, but there must always be some, even if only at the initiation point.

Immanent art exhibits physical, chemical or biological dynamics that act independently of the artist. That is, the art's form is self-determined, possibly for an extended period. Art that clarifies or heightens one's experience of a natural process (like melting ice, flowing tides, cell reproduction) can really be enlightening and I hope to see much more of it, even though I am a reasonably environmentally-aware pessimist with his eyes glued to screens for much of my life :-)

If anything really has the potential to change our view of the self as extending into the realm of what we currently label "the environment" I feel it is most likely architecture. This operates more broadly than art since: all of us, whether we are intellectually interested in it or not, engage directly with it; it is absorbed subconsciously and mediates our experience of the climate and other organisms. A topic for another post.

Cheetah Feet

Cheetah feet replacement for runners without lower limbs seem like they might give a runner an advantage over one with natural limbs. The carbon fibre limbs are passive springs with a greater return than human soft tissue. The study detailed on the ABC's Catalyst (Why don't we have more good science shows in Australia?) indicates however that since they lack calf muscles, the artificial limbs cannot generate the same propulsive force as a biological limb. Runners wearing them are therefore not at an advantage when compared to fully bio-limbed competitors.

I've raced against a cyclist with an artificial limb clipped to his pedal at what would have been the heel (i.e. the limb had no foot). I guess this allows him to press and raise the pedal with his thigh, gluteus and back which do the work even in bio-limbed riders. The calves of cyclists may look impressive but apparently they do not apply much driving force, they just stabilise the foot. Steve Hogg has gone so far as to slide the cleat on bio-limbed riders back towards the arch of the foot instead of under the ball. He claims it gives an increase in power whilst in the saddle, even if you lose agility out of the saddle. I.e. this position is for flat TTs rather than sprinting or climbing out of the saddle.

So, if an athlete with a prosthetic limb turned up to compete on a mechanically-actuated limb, could it be tuned to mimic biology and provide an equal playing field? How would this be determined? I suppose it is strange how men and women compete separately but short high jumpers are not given a special category in which to avoid needing to compete against taller athletes. Heavy-weight boxers do not compete against fly-weights. Weird! Who decided in some sports to have categories but not in others? What basis did they use for their decisions?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Feminism, Deep Ecology and Environmental Ethics

Notes on, Zimmerman, Michael E., Feminism, Deep Ecology and Environmental Ethics. In The Deep Ecology Movement, An Introductory Anthology, Drengson and Inoue (eds), North Atlantic Books, 1995, pp 169-197.

In a nutshell, this is a paper responding to feminist claims that Deep Ecology is so heavily based in patriarchal thinking that it cannot possibly succeed. Main reasons (according to this male author) as I (a male) interpret them are:
  1. That until males accept the domination of women as equivalent to male domination of nature any such philosophy is only giving lip-service to the ideas it professes;
  2. That the specifically male trait of identifying self as independent of social relations is tied to the uniquely male trait of identifying self as independent of nature;
  3. That women have such a different (and superior) world view (that they somehow inherit despite their obvious domination by and participation in this admittedly patriarchal society) that they are uniquely positioned to overcome the problems men have created;
  4. Only men could be concerned with "rights" of humans and other organisms because only men see themselves as independent selves. For women this point is moot since they are social, natural beings.
Zimmerman responds to each of these points carefully. I have not read the sources he cites. I have read little feminist literature. This paper confirms my understanding which is a pity. I am always hoping to find a view that will burst the bubble that isolates me from the authors of this literature, especially if it is written by a male critic and can be interpreted by a male (me).

Clearly there are differences between males and females. Our physiology and life experiences are shaped by different chemical and societal conditions. I prefer philosophies that cherish these differences and at the same time seek our similarities. We are all part of the same system. We can't exist without one another. We are the combined result of 4.5 billion years of evolution. I acknowledge the mess males keep getting into and the messes they make of female's lives. I bet females would get into their own messes (and some of them would clearly make a mess of male lives) if this was a matriarchal society. Enough already. This is why we need to work together and stop squabbling about what is a male/female trait/notion/ideal. Action: acknowledge the problem and identify ways of life that can improve the situation.

beijing air quality

US cyclists arrive in China wearing face marks to filter out the air pollution and need to apologise. Of course the local cyclists do it too. Whose idea was it to hold a sporting contest in a place where the conditions are so unsuited to it? Ride a bicycle and breathe car fumes. This is as ironic as a Quit campaigner dying from passive smoking. I am becoming eco-pathological. (Marvellous top photo by Natalie Behring)

shallow and deep ecology

Remarks on, Naess, A., The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary (1973).

The Shallow Ecology movement:

Fight against pollution and resource depletion. Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.

The Deep Ecology movement:
  1. Reject the idea of "human (or any thing) in environment". Humans (and other things too) are part of a wide range of inter-connected systems that define us and the systems of which we form a part. It is not helpful to draw boundaries that delineate us from everything else.
  2. Biospherical egalitarianism. All living things (including all humans) have a fundamental right to "live and blossom".
  3. Diversity and symbiosis are better guiding principles than a naive "survival of the fittest" approach.
  4. Anti-class (human)... I am not sure I understand the reasoning given to support this point although the principle itself makes perfect sense to me.
  5. Fight against pollution and resource depletion - but not without also considering the other principles. I.e. it is not acceptable to place burdens on developing nations to offset the pollution of the West.
  6. Distinguish between Complexity and Complication. Appreciate the complexity of this planet and its ecosystems. Never over-estimate our level of understanding and ability to forecast the impact of our behaviour.
  7. Favour local autonomy and de-centralisation. We can tread more softly in this way (the Earth's ecosystems are not homogeneous) and we can consider local concerns without crushing them under "one-size fits all" solutions.
Overall this is a comprehensive set of principles. The Idealist in me would love to see them widely held. There are some practical hurdles to be overcome though. For instance, billions currently scrape out a meagre living with de-centralised agricultural practice. How can people living on low grade land, with little natural resource (e.g. fertile soil, water) support themselves without importing food? Of course it is not acceptable to let them die (see Diamond J., Collapse for a number of telling tales). Why not allow for global trade powered by renewable and clean resources so that they can support themselves with food they cannot grow themselves? Or should all peoples somehow move in together into regions where they can farm happily? Do we destroy our existing large cities?

If we are to maintain this planet in the long term there are going to be some hard decisions to make. Who will make them? "Live and let live" is a great policy. How do we put it into practice whilst observing the other principles also? How do we overcome the current structures' momentum in time?

These are deep and vexing questions.


eco-pathology has a certain ring to it. A Google search turns up: the study of biological, physical, human and economic causal elements of disease in livestock. However, in Ecology and the End of Postmodernity, George Myerson (in a very postmodern way), decides on his own interpretation of the term. He bases it on Freud's idea of psycho-pathology. Just as Freud read unsettling meaning into the minute details of everyday human behaviour, assuming them to be symptomatic of underlying trauma, Myerson feels that we (predominantly the media) now read danger signs for imminent ecological disaster in all natural events.

For instance, even the fact that more cafes are opening street seating indicates
an increase in global temperatures. On a larger scale, outbreaks of SARS, Mad-Cow disease, AIDS etc. are indicative of a rampaging nature run amok. Floods in the UK are a sign of climate change and rising sea levels.

This is all part of a new Grand Narrative (hence the title of the book... Myserson claims we are returning to Modernity) of Ecology. Science, Technology and Governments will see us through. To act against the mainstream is irresponsible. We must all bow to the experts with the ability to forecast the gloomy future.

Sadly the world and its ecosystems are in a declining mess. It is our fault. It doesn't take an expert to notice. It takes a moron to think otherwise. I don't know how to describe those who still insist that profit and shareholder dividends cannot be sacrificed in the name of environmentalism. "Shallow Ecology" anyone? :-(

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

black gloss

Black is very sexy.

I am not a Specialized fan (I hate that ugly z), nor do I like frames with kinked seat stays (although I am coming around to the Pinarello Onda fork after seeing Valverde's firey frame). But this shot of the '09 Roubaix is gorgeous. A gothic bicycle image!

revival field

Mel Chin's Revival Field (1990) is an example of a kind of ecosystemic artistic practice that is starting to interest me. How can a computer scientist and artist, fascinated by simulation and the power of abstract symbol manipulation, make a work that similarly engages with the biological world in a positive or neutral way? Is it possible to do this by changing peoples' awareness of the natural world? Perhaps this is more easily justified than physical manipulation. In the case of Revival Field the work re-establishes the living processes and self-organisation that had been decimated by human-concentrated pollutants.

Every time I turn on my computer I am consuming non-renewable energy. I could make ecosystemic art using computers only if
the machines I used: (i) were produced using green energy and using processes and materials that were not destructive to the enviornment (is that even possible in this case!?); (ii) completely recycled at the end of their lifetime; (iii) operated on renewable resources. Solar, wind and human powered electronic media art works could be quite fun. The computer itself is piece of equipment with a high ecological cost.

ecosystem marketing

Sometimes I think the metaphor of ecosystems is taken a little too far. Marketing itself has everything to do with the complete lack of ecosystemic thinking that permeates our entire culture. One look at the figure should raise alarm bells : the arrows depict flows in strange and non-cyclic ways. What happens at the points where the fire and water arrows collide? Save the planet from marketing! We are doomed.
The Mobile Marketing Ecosystem is comprised of 4 interconnecting strategic spheres–Product & Services (brands, content owners and marketing agencies), Applications (discrete application providers and mobile ASPs), Connection (aggregators and wireless operators), and Media and Retail (media properties, “brick ‘n’ mortar” and virtual retail stores). Various enablers provide the foundation for each particular sphere. Players within these spheres work in concert to deliver a rich experience to consumers. The Mobile Channel Value Chain is the path by which the actual mobile communication and interactivity takes place between the Product & Services Sphere and mobile subscribers (consumers), however, consumer demand must first be established. To create this demand, products, services, events, and content programs are promoted through the Media and Retail Sphere’s various traditional channels.

library return-date stamps

I lament the loss of the sheets of paper glued into the back of library books on which the librarian would batter a date stamp. They told of the history of the very book that was snuggled into my hand. Every time I borrowed a new book I felt like I was playing a part in its life, as it was in mine.
No longer can I tell whether I have discovered a rarely read gem or a well worn train of thought. Barcodes have a lot to answer for when it comes to data aesthetics. The different coloured stamp blocks that sometimes stamped well, and sometimes so faintly they could hardly be discerned added character to a book like the lines on a mountaineer's face or the scars on a cyclist's limbs.

first post - ecotone

I am not an early adopter of new technology... I am too cautious and prefer to let others iron out the bumps. Blogging has settled and now I'm interested enough to give it a go. Besides, right now I have time for it. This will no doubt evaporate again in a couple of months and my blog will go as stale as the crust of bread at the back of the pantry. In the meantime, welcome.

ecotone, n. a region of transition between two biological communities.

Ecotone is a word I noted from a book that, after a shaky start, is growing on me:
Ecological Design by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan (1996). I think the label is appropriate for a blog which is no doubt going to be a region where my interests intermingle.