Traveling to Utopia with YHCHI

By Jake Sell Hicks

Pending publication in PURE TRAUMA, part of the DEEP TISSUE zine series. Published here with permission.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ piece “Traveling to Utopia: With a Brief History of the Technology” proposes that technology’s progression ironically functions as an invasion, using metaphors of immigration and nationality to propel their questioning of society’s integration with technology. The use of specific languages, nationalities, personal narratives, and forms of technology ground the piece in the viewers’ reality, allowing the work to transcend the screen and embed itself in daily life. 

 

When the viewer begins the piece, the visual structure and elements demand the most attention, with the mellow jazz taking a close second. The introduction to the piece displays: “Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries Presents,” followed by a countdown of mixed numbers and words overlaying the visual narrative structure that will encompass almost the entire piece. This structure is a three-piece textual layout, with the top in Korean and the bottom two in English. The word placement creates a clear hierarchy of importance, as the middle text is presented much larger than either the top or bottom bars, both of which are green text on black background, alluding to the old terminal display on early personal computers. This acts to bracket the middle text, displayed in the same typeface, black on white, suggesting a progression from old, “visible guts” technology to newer, more aestheticized forms of technological presentation that mask the underlying mechanisms of operation. This is a signifier that outlines the evolution of media and technology from a separate facet of our lives to a deeply integral one that permeates almost everything. This futuristic integration of technology and daily life is hinted at before the piece is even begun.

 

Screenshot 2019-11-20 at 12.33.44

 

The title itself foreshadows a critique of societal/technological change by pretending to visit “utopia.” Invoking Wells, Huxley, and various other science fiction writers produces a lineage of dystopic futures where our technological advances have altered individuals and society, suggesting a transition from technology as innovation to technology as invasion. YHCHI follows this framework and provokes the viewer to consider how the narratives and the visual elements in this piece may parallel or allude to their lives. The personal narratives allow the viewers to subsume themselves in the struggles of each protagonist, and thus relay these conflicts to their own lives. The stories follow characters that could easily be someone the viewer knows.

The middle narrative describes a woman who is presented with technology (and the succeeding upgrades to that technology) when she leaves home for college. After a certain point she discovers a locator chip in her gut and decides to just “avoid […] certain areas.”[1] Being literally impregnated with a technology that is foreign to her, she lacks the means to attain privacy. Continually shifting between temporary/transitional locations allows her an impermanence that removes her from the feeling of being watched, because it doesn’t matter – it’s such an impersonal place that it is personal. She says she likes to escape by going to “airport hotels where the atmosphere is exotic but reassuring in the midst of which I feel like I’ve gone to a far-off place that’s both everywhere and nowhere.” [2] This last portion of the narrative lacks punctuation until the very end, whereas the rest of the piece contains much more, highlighting a greater discomfort – an anxiety – when the monologue is trying to project minimally problematic acquiescence. The woman is constructed as being passive, not only unable to react and fight for herself, but unwilling to do so.

In contrast, the bottom narrative follows a man who struggles with his identity in a hostile environment, which seems to be every environment the man inhabits: he is the embedded nuisance. This portion uses several French phrases, mentions Paris and French police, Seoul, an English passport that the police cannot read, and the “hierarchy in the délit de faciès: Arab, African, Swarthy, Asian.”[3] These, along with the larger personal narrative of the man dreaming he was not detained when stopped, bring together immigration, ethnicity, assimilation, surveillance, espionage (and thus national security), and the acts within emigration via the oppressed individual. The man also says he “avoided” certain areas to stay out of the view of some body of overseers.[4] He is unable to alter his situation, as greater forces continually bear down upon him: he is not so much passive as he is apathetic. His fatigue is derived from a constant quelling of his struggle for personal freedom and agency.

As outlined in the lower narrative, language plays an important role in this piece, and YHCHI chose English for the piece consciously,[5] beginning the argument of colonialism and globalization that underlies much of the piece, extending to both visual and narrative metaphor: everything is being infected with technology. All three lines of text move at separate paces, the top continually scrolling like a Times Square stock feed (but to the beat of the percussion), the middle swiping on the four count, and the bottom flashing from one line to the next on the same beat. These compete for the viewer’s attention and focus, miming a flow of entertainment: the ephemeral stream of options passes so quickly that choice is often relinquished for passive submission. The flow itself is a controlling mechanism, moving the viewer forever forward, never allowing a step back, again mirroring the unstoppable growth and evolution of technology. The continuous scroll of Korean, being unreadable, foreign, and exotic (to many viewers), fits oddly well with the music playing, degrading it to a row of symbols that allude to song – a score of sorts – which is ambiguous and, in many ways, meaningless. This resonates with the dominance of English in the piece; it is assumed that we do not understand the Korean and thus its coordination with the music and its relation to our image of the stock feed reinforce the superiority of English by proposing that it is the only text that matters. This would only be a weak connection without the music, the existence of which promotes several concurrent interpretations.

The jazz, a mash up of many forms of music, free-forming and taking its own style, fits the “progression” framework, as it, in some ways, predated globalization in funneling and synthesizing several cultures in a wave of popular music. The jazz also acts to keep the text moving, as it does in all of YHCHI’s pieces, producing the sensation that we have no control, but that submission to this is ok – this is how it’s supposed to be, as all music has taught us to listen, especially when presented in this unidirectional way. Similarly, there is a dissonance in the mood of the music and that of the text, though they don’t confront one another directly. The jazz in this piece contends with some of the impact of the piece: the narrative is not necessarily upbeat, but the use of fairly light jazz reinforces the lulling, delusional space inhabited by the narratives’ characters. Sedately happy, the music mirrors the blind soma-induced submission to technology’s invasion.

Employing all these elements, YHCHI is suggesting that technology is utilized for the invasion of people’s lives for matters of security, which is cyclical in nature: as the body at large invades the individual body/life, the individual loses control, agency, and thus the perception of safety. The issue of unattainable safety revolves around the contested sanctity of the body as well as the privacy of our personal lives, as individuals are managed by their respective governing bodies. Both narratives show that individuals grapple with this insecurity, but compromise and ultimately submit to it without much struggle. YHCHI propose this is happening somewhere, be it real or not, present, future, or past, male and female, classless, and relatable to the majority of their audience: the viewer is made into the subject of the narrative via its ambiguity. Here then is the provocation: if we are being surveilled, or are going to be, in any of these ways, will we submit so placidly?

[1] Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, “Traveling Utopia: With a Brief History of the Technology,” 3:31-3:34

[2] Ibid., 3:36-3:43

[3] Ibid., 2:56-3:01

[4] Ibid., 3:04

[5]http://iowareview.uiowa.edu/TIRW/TIRW_Archive/tirweb/feature/younghae/interview.html

Bees: An Opportunity for Recognising Abstractions and Hearing the Non-Human

By Robert Marns

13 Bob blog imageImage:Experimental visualisation of floral electric field using electrostatic dusting” (Clarke and Roberts, 2017)

What silliness to judge insects – so ancient, so diverse, so accomplishes, so successful, so beautiful, so astonishing, so mysterious, so unknown – by criteria they can never meet and about which they could not care! What silliness to disregard their accomplishments and focus instead on their deficiencies! What pitiful poverty of imagination to see them as resources merely for our self-knowledge! (Raffles, 2010, p. 169)

From dusting off my grandfather’s dog-eared beekeeping guide, to the crystallising honey in my cupboard, to the enthusiasm of a friend who watches a bumblebee fill their pollen baskets whilst visiting a flowering basil plant, to news of colony collapse disorder decimating populations of honey bees (Apis mellifera), to marvelling at beyond-ancient cave paintings of honey-hunting, to watching a solitary mining bee return to its dug out hole in the earth, to finding a swarm settled in a bush outside the Arts and Social Sciences library in late spring, it is hard to know where to begin, or indeed, enter, this hive of fascination, admiration, and the unexplained realities of the 25,000 different known species that we commonly name, in English, the ‘bee’. Indeed, what can geography bring to this varied and ongoing conversation with and about our worldly co-producers?

Bees are frequently encountered as canaries in the coalmine of the present. They are often invoked under representative schemas common to environmental activism and advocacy that frame speaking for as the limit of possible ‘speech’ of nature. Nature can’t speak, so we must; bees are passive victims of our violence (ex. herbicides, pesticides, intensive agriculture, etc) and so need defending. One risk, however, in speaking for bees, and, ipso facto, nature, is that we unknowingly reproduce ourselves, that is, humans, as somehow unique from and distinct to the worlds bees come to represent. We rely upon our abstractions to encounter these creatures, rather than learn to listen to them, and their distinctness from us, but also from the innumerable agencies and voices that make up other-than-human worlds. Speaking for them reminds one of Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ where appeals to representative approaches re-commit a violence of silencing, an epistemic violence which makes nature—albeit through a care for the narrowing of the future in ecocide—the ultimate Other.

But, might the bee speak to us as we seek to understand the violence of our ecological present as a forceful claustrophobia of the future, a slow violence perpetuated, felt, responded to, and creatively mediated constantly by humans and nonhumans alike? Maybe, in asking such a question—and so following a continuous theme in the Society and Space course—we might begin to become aware of our abstractions, and perhaps even remedy, some of the “epistemological and ontological biases that are remnants of the colonial conquest of nature” (Sheikh, 2019, p.14) that provide the lens through which the bee (and nature) is often encountered and understood.

This question of the ‘speech’ of the bee, when introduced to the frame of the ecological witness, takes on a new significance, and provides the central question for this research.

Refusing this silencing, perhaps there could be a listening which would intervene in the teleological bureaucratic anthropocentric activism, of managing ecosystem ‘service’ management and of greening capitalism on the one hand, or certain extinction on the other. Becoming able to sense their active involvement and creativity in the present could force a stuttering of our certainties about either our hope or our doom, opening up a fragile liminal space where something new can be expressed and learned.

Several common narratives of bees ‘speaking’ suggest themselves as worthy of scrutiny. Self-evident, first, is the long marvelled communicative capacities of bees: their ‘waggle-dance’, which through a series of movements communicates distance and location of food sources. Moreover, pushing beyond a conceptualisation of this communication as mere automated , de-subjectified, non-creative and only reactive communication, the ‘spasmodic dance’ of the bee contains no information but something like the “dancing mood”, or again the ‘jerking dance’ which is considered as a expression of joy and contentment, or finally the collective nest dance which is concerned in a social process of shared decision making (Raffles, 2010, p. 167).

Or consider colony collapse disorder. Contained within this framing and storying of whole bee hives suddenly dying is already a recognition that the hive is itself a nervous system which responds to its contexts and represents itself. Yet, this is often narrated as a sort of computational response to a virus or ecological disturbance, which the bee is not actively engaged in responding to, but only merely undergoing an automatic reaction towards.

Another example is the assumption of individuality, where the ‘bee’ is understood as individual insect, a singular organism encased in their singular body rather than the recognising the bee as the superorganism of the hive, this fact, once again, demonstrates the projection of colonial abstractions of the interior and exterior, which the bee in its very being undermines.

A final example is how work on bees often focuses on the social bees,yet 90% of bees are solitary and non-social, and so less productive for humans as they do not make honey.  They are categorized as less evolved using categories of sociality, communication and complexity to measure their place in nature. Such categories overlook the differences they express, like being  efficient pollinators, which is now understood to involve a process of the bee sensing the electromagnetic field of the flower, possibly to assess the desirability of individual flowers (Clarke and Robert, 2017) from one another.

These examples bring first an awareness of how we are continuously caught up in categorizations and abstractions, which have very ‘real’ and practical outcomes as these notions determine how Western beekeeping literally ‘frames’ bees, directing their activity towards human hands, tastes and desires. Whilst Western science has directed research at the most charismatic species of the bee, the point I wish to highlight is a move to recognise the non-human as resolutely creative rather than only reactive, shifting from only representing ecological distress to where some of the bees representations, and how it shares these with us, come to matter in politics. Here, an ethics of recognition of abstractions is sought to enable different encounters with the nonhuman other.  Furthermore, developing a sense of this active involvement shakes sedimented understandings of power and agency within this crisis. Perhaps, traversing from disregard to appreciation and intimate recognition could change what we understand is at stake, a new listening beyond abstractions may provide some assistance of how to respond to ecological unravelling.

 

References

Clarke, D., Morley, E. and Robert, D., 2017. The bee, the flower, and the electric field: electric ecology and aerial electroreception. Journal of Comparative Physiology A203(9), pp.737-748.

Povinelli, E.A., 2016. Geontologies: A requiem to late liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Raffles, H., 2010. Insectopedia. New York: Vintage.

Sheikh, S., 2018. The Future of the Witness: Nature, Race and More-than-Human Environmental Publics. Kronos44(1), pp.145-162.

 

Sinking Islands and the Loss of Origin in the Anthropocene

By Warefta Murshed

In this blog, I attempt to weave together some of the conceptual themes I’m exploring in my dissertation by examining the challenges that the island nation of Kiribati faces at the forefront of climate change. Climate change is perhaps the most visceral manifestation of the Anthropocene, confronting Kiribati with the very reality of extinction for its people, more-than-human entities and traditional ways of living. I argue that, in order to cope with the inevitable loss that the Anthropocene will bring, we must engage in acts of ecological mourning in order to move forward.

In his short essay ‘Desert Islands’, philosopher Gilles Deleuze (2004: no page) writes that islands are the ‘consciousness of earth and ocean’ and that ‘humans cannot live, nor live in security, unless they assume the active struggle between earth and water is over, or at least contained.’ Here, a Deleuzian logic mediates that islands are existentially a space of contention between earth and water, where survival is depended on the victory of land over sea. Thus, as the archipelagos that make up the nation of Kiribati begin to sink beneath the sea, this logic rings true, threatening its inhabitants with the very reality of possible extinction.

Made up of 33 islands, Kiribati has been called a ‘Nation of Water’ (Chappell 2016: 8) and is one of the first countries in the Pacific that is slowly disappearing because of sea-level rise due to anthropogenic climate change. The catch-all term to describe these forms of environmental crises and degradation is being referred to as the ‘Anthropocene’, a new geological epoch in which humans are the biggest driving force behind the planetary crisis we are facing today. The Anthropocene has placed the ecological crisis on a planetary scale, posing new challenges to temporalities, geographical imaginaries and survival on Earth. Yet the planetary thinking in the Anthropocene tends to obscure the inherent geographical inequalities that define where environmental catastrophes are occurring and who eventually pays for its consequences.

Since 1999, two of the inhabited islands in the archipelagos, Tebula and Abannuea, have disappeared underwater (Kwa 2008). Dispossession due to disappearing land is not simply a hypothetical future for this island nation, but rather, a very tangible one. Dispossession of course, is no stranger to Kiribati. Though now mainly inhabited by Samoan descendants, the islands have been occupied from as early as the 16th century by Spanish seamen, followed by British settlements in the 18th century and a brief Japanese seizure during World War II. Even after independence from British colonisation in 1979, political autonomy did not mean freedom from the structures and obstacles inherited from the colonial period. Decolonisation still relied on formulating constitutions that complied with a prefabricated version of the nation state which endorsed the ‘European-derived model as universal’ (Chappell 2016: 15-16). The leaders of newly formed Kiribati had to ‘syncretise those alien frameworks with indigenous values and customs.’ (ibid: 15). The implicit coloniality in adhering to global bureaucracy became that indigenous ways of living and knowing were slowly dispossessed by a hegemonic world system that valued economic development over environmental sustainability, leaving Kiribati to now pay the price for the ‘ecological limits to capitalism’ (Chakrabarty 2009: 200).

Dispossession, therefore, has had ‘many unhappy returns’ (Abourahme 2018:109) for these islands, and the Anthropocene poses its latest eviction notice. Like many countries in the South Pacific, Kiribati has begun to take policy and legislative measures to mitigate the ongoing effects of sea level rise. Citizens from Kiribati have already claimed climate refugee status and migrated to New Zealand and in anticipation of a larger exodus, the government has also bought land from Fiji in hopes to give its people ‘migration with dignity’ (Chappell 2016:15) when the time comes.

Moreover, as Kiribati’s impending disappearance captures the fascination of the global community, other, more ambitious, technocentric solutions to the issue also emerges. A Japanese engineering firm, ‘Shimizu’ has designed a hypothetical underwater ‘floating island’ that has the potential to house half the inhabitants of Kiribati (Rytz 2018). Shimizu argues that developing the deep sea like space would be a solution to the disasters that plague the Anthropocene because it would minimise the risk from weather phenomena such as typhoons and create a new space for human existence (ibid). Yet at a cost of $450 billion per floating island, Shimziu’s project is an example of the ways in which the Anthropocene is being used to ‘revive fantasies about humans’ ability to control nature’ (Hecht 2018: 111). It is also a reminder that survival in this new epoch comes with a hefty price tag. As former president of Kiribati Anote Tong puts it ‘…we don’t think in those terms [in Kiribati]. We keep thinking that we can continue to destroy this planet because we believe we can fix it with our technology, in our arrogance to believe we have control over everything’ (Rytz 2018).

12. Warefta image 1Image 1: Shimizu’s artificial islands (Rytz 2018)

What none of these solutions account for is the incommensurable loss that will be experienced by the inhabitants of the island nation. In following a Deleuzian logic, to find a desert island is to find a place ‘ready to begin the world anew’, a place of origin (Deleuze 2004: no page). The reversal, therefore, would indicate a loss of origin. Making loss, in the case of Kiribati, ontological. Not only will islanders lose their ancestral homes, they will lose their sense of belonging and indigenous ties to the land, sea and sky. Beyond this, the more-than-human loss that befalls ‘animal, vegetal and mineral bodies’ (Willox 2012: 139) will also be felt deeply by Kiribatians due to the inextricable human and non-human entanglements that exist in their cosmologies.

12. Warefta image 2Image  2: Indigenous Traditions (photo David Gray/Reuters, available at https://widerimage.reuters.com/story/that-sinking-feeling [accessed 23 August 2019])

Perhaps the only real solution to navigating Kiribati’s disappearing present is to remain open to the loss. Besides the logistical implications of dispossession, to create recognition and humility when encountering loss on this scale, there must be personal, national and global acts of mourning. Willox (2012) argues that the only way to navigate the multi-scalar consequences of loss in the Anthropocene is by grieving the change. In mourning, she writes, ‘we can share our losses and encounter them as opportunities’ (ibid: 157) to understand our own vulnerability, fragility and interconnection to this planet. Mourning allows us to remain exposed to our losses and ‘affectively’ binds us together with both human and more-than-human entities so that in remembrance, we can move forward. Moreover, mourning in the Anthropocene is particularly important because it highlights the responsibility, we share for one another and ‘reconstitutes human and nonhuman others as grievable subjects’ (ibid: 153).

Of course, extending grief to global discourse means opening up the question of ‘what counts as a liveable life and a grievable death’ (Butler: 2004: xvi). The homosexual body, the indigenous body, the black body, the poor body, the woman’s body and especially the non-human body has historically been denied the right to grief and existence in various ethical and political domains. Yet, for the sake of optimism, haps public acts of remembrance and mourning to cope with loss in the Anthropocene will create new opportunities to share the ecological grief in our current planetary crisis and emphasize that ‘intimate and transcorporeal connections [are] shared across species boundaries and spatial and temporal scales’ (Willox 2012: 154).

Even as global anxieties about loss in the Anthropocene heighten, Kiribati’s future remains unclear. Perhaps there is hope for survival. But as present-day Kiribati disappears into the sea, the ontological loss that will be experienced by its human and nonhuman inhabitants is a stark reminder of ‘who pays the price for humanity’s planetary footprints’ (Gabrielle Hecht 2018: 135).

 

REFERENCES

Abourahme, N. 2018. ‘Of monsters and boomerangs: Colonial returns in the late liberal city’, City, 22:1, 106-115, DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2018.1434296

Butler, J. (2004) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

Chakrabarty, D. (2009) ‘The climate of history: four theses.’ Critical Inquiry (Winter), pp 197 – 222.

Chappell, D. (2016) ‘Water Nations: Colonial Bordering, Exploitation, and Indigenous Nation-Building in Kiribati and Tuvalu.’ Pacific Asia Inquiry 7, pp 8–25.

Deleuze, G. (2004) ‘Desert Islands’ in Desert Islands and Other Texts: 1953-1974. Semiotext(e)

Hecht, G. (2018), ‘Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence’, Cultural Anthropology 33, 109–141. doi:10.14506/ca33.1.05

The Commonwealth (2019), Kiribati: History | The Commonwealth. Available at: http://thecommonwealth.org/our-member-countries/kiribati/history. [Accessed 12 July 2019].

Rytz, M. (2018), Sinking Islands, Floating Nation: Can Artificial Islands Save This Country? |  New York Times Op-Docs. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhLEzrzOPKY. [Accessed 12 July 2019]

Kwa, E.L. (2008). ‘Climate Change and Indigenous People in the South Pacific’ in: International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Academy of Environmental Law Conference on “Climate Law in Developing Countries Post-2012: North and South Perspectives.” pp. 1–15

Willox, A.C. (2012) ‘Climate Change as the Work of Mourning’, Ethics and the Environment 17, pp. 137-164, doi:10.2979/ethicsenviro.17.2.137