By Rosie McLellan
This blog post thinks through the themes of aesthetic interventions, sensing time and engendering response-ability using artistic responses to climate change. Here, these themes are drawn from one piece of art, Your Waste of Time, by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. This performative showcasing of glacial ice establishes interactions and relations between human bodies and icy materialities- but what is at stake here and what potentialities could be created through artistic practices? These are questions that have arisen through my current dissertation, where I hope to explore artistic responses to environmental degradation through the materialities of ice and plastic.
For the piece Your Waste of Time, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson transported several large blocks of ice from Vatnajökull, the largest and oldest glacier in Iceland, to the Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider (Eliasson, 2006). This glacier is almost incomprehensibly ancient, with some parts dating from around 1200 AD, but human-driven global warming has begun thawing Vatnajökull, dislodging chunks of ice from the main body of the glacier. This has left behind a scattering of sculpture-like nuggets of ice across the landscape, pieces that untouched, would soon melt away. Eliasson’s project transported these pieces to Germany, to be displayed in an art gallery.
Here the wayfaring blocks of ice were kept in a refrigerated space as immersive sculptures that audience members were encouraged to touch. This was an attempt by Eliasson to bring the visceral reality of human-driven climate change to the attention of the audience through a sensory engagement with ice. In Eliasson’s words, ‘we take away time from the glacier by touching it’ (Eliasson, 2006). Within this molecular moment of sensation between the human and icy touch, the exchange of human warmth is enough to begin to decay the ice. Your Waste of Time then becomes an experiment to curate a sense of environmental care through molecular icy interactions.
Your Waste of Time, Olafur Eliasson, photo by Jens Ziehe
Recently, such environmental artistic interventions have been located temporally with the term ‘anthropocene’. Anthropocene has come into use to refer to human-driven environmental change and degradation. Although the ‘Anthro-pocene’ privileges and homogenises the human (a white, western human) within environmental discourses, the term has become a buzzword for the current era of global pollution and warming. As an imaginary, the Anthropocene cuts through different temporalities; finite human lives, longer lived materialities (such as ice) and geological timescales.
Artistic responses to environmental issues engage with this increasingly unpredictable world, through a sensory engagement with temporality, with other materialities and bodies. It can even be said that ‘attuning ourselves, through poetry, art, and description, to pay attention to other times…these are crucial practices; in fact, they are matters of survival.’ (Davis and Turpin, 2015). Although influential feminist scholar Donna Haraway (2015) proposes other terms such as Capitalocene to denote the specifically capitalist causes of environmental degradation, the Anthropocene also remains an arguably productive term. Art positioned as relating to different temporal imaginaries is thus a speculative, experimental project to think differently, to world differently. Although the term Anthropocene remains contestable, it’s very instability lends itself to artistic conceptual engagements that function through such fragile and indeterminate encounters.
Image: Your Waste of Time, Olafur Eliasson, photo by Jens Ziehe
Positioned in the white, empty space of the art gallery, the fragility of the ice is magnified. This fragility comes to light through the invocation to touch the surface of the icy sculpture. In the words of Eliasson; ‘When we touch these blocks of ice with our hands, we are not just struck by the chill; we are struck by the world itself. We take time from the glacier by touching it’. As Erin Manning (2006), notes in her work on the intersections between art practice and philosophy, sensation opens up the body to thinking and doing differently through its relation to other bodies and things. Touch, in this light, is located neither with the human or the inhuman, but invented through the encounter.
But what happens at a touch? Ice, as sensory aesthetic experience, brings closer together the relations already held between ice and human bodies. Quantum physicist turned feminist philosopher Karen Barad (2012) brings together feminist traditions that unsettle ways of thinking materiality and quantum physics. A sense of touch, for Barad, can be unsettled a molecular exposition of the minute interactions between electrons. This is a murky and confusing world of quantum physics for most social scientists, but Barad productively draws out the indeterminacy at the very building blocks of sensation. Quantum theory holds infinites as integral. This argues for a radical openness of potentialities at the very building-blocks of mattering – all matter is unstable at its foundations. Could it be argued that there is at stake, the unsettling of stable ways of thinking and an opening up of openness already at the heart of mattering?
At the moment of touch between a hand and the blocks of ice, this becomes clear- the warmth of the body causes the ice to change state and start to melt. For Eliasson, ‘We take away time from the glacier by touching it. Suddenly I make the glacier understood to me, its temporality. It is linked to the time the water took to become ice, a glacier. By touching it, I embody my knowledge by establishing physical contact. And suddenly we understand that we do actually have the capacity to understand the abstract with our senses. Touching time is touching abstraction.’ What does it mean to touch time? Touch, as unsettling and in-touch with infinite possibilities could signal a potential for thinking differently. The term anthropocene signals (if problematically) this need to think differently about temporality. The geologic lifespan of the ice is not permanent, but made fragile under a human touch. Temporality, then is not a stable concept either, but one that aesthetic interventions can trouble and disrupt assumptions that time related solely to a stable ticking of the clock.
This touching-time, for Eliasson, has a political undertone. Time is a crucial and sensitive issue in climate change debates. The critical question is, how to engender response-ability and action to do something to halt the tide of environmental degradation and global temperature rise. Haraway (2015) has written about an art project by the Institute of Figuring (2005-ongoing) to crochet coral reefs, involving thousands of people working to cultivate and care for these crochet-corals, gathering each person’s work into an exhibition, curating the corals to establish a reef. Like Your Waste of Time, The Crochet Coral Reef Project has time at its centre. Crocheting, like the establishment of a coral reef, takes time, and has the potential to establish caring relations through the touch of human-material and time. Could art such as this create publics that could do differently concerning climate change?
Image: Crochet Coral Reef Project, Institute of Figuring
Care in this context relates to everything that both humans and nonhuman things to continue to repair their world to live as well as possible. These caring relations knit the world together and create complex links between things and humans in the world. Feminist scholar Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) proposes an ethics of care. This care is not a moralism. It is not a case of you should care about environmental degradation! Rather, it is a speculation to see what could happen if we relate to the things and environments around us through more caring relations.
Your Waste of Time, framed through touch, time and care touches upon possible pasts, presents and futures that are framed as undecided. As the ice hovers indeterminately in-between solid and liquid, so does the potential for doing differently. Geologic timescales interact with a momentary present. Could this moment of touch between ice and human engender more caring relations that span other times and other places? Your Waste of Time, then, may not be a waste of time, but rather put us in-touch with time.
Barad, K. (2012) ‘On touching – The inhuman that therefore I am’, Differences, 23(3): 206-223
Davis, H. and Turpin, E., eds. (2015), ‘Art in the Anthropocene’, London: Open Humanities Press
De la Bellacasa, M. (2011), ‘Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1): 85-106
Eliasson, O. (2006), ‘Your Waste of Time’, Berlin: Neugerriemschneider [http://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK100564/your-waste-of-time]
Haraway, D. and Kenney, M. (2015), ‘Anthropocene, Capitolocene, Chthulhocene’, in: Davis, H. and Turpin, E., eds. (2015), ‘Art in the Anthropocene’, London: Open Humanities Press
Institute of Figuring, (2005-Ongoing), ‘Crochet Coral Reef Project’, New York: MAD Museum of Modern Arts [http://madmuseum.org/exhibition/crochet-coral-reef-toxic-seas]
Manning, E. (2006), ‘Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty’, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
 See more regarding the Anthropocene at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth