Eco-Thoughts: How the interview activates listening in these days of distraction

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I am completely in love with my genius Eco-Thoughts editor at The Believer, Hayden Bennett. He and I have never met in person, we talk via keyboards and sometimes phone. He offers so much support and warmth across this collaboration.

We are collaborating, with our interview subjects, on a new monthly column for The Believer, Eco-Thoughts. Here is the latest one, with Joanna Zylinska!

I am thinking about how important the interview is as a form, and thinking about how we should teach it in the MFA program at CCA. The interview is an exercise in close listening and the interview is a stay against the distractions of our times. It is about seeing and hearing another human. Its very form, the interplay, the tossing back and forth of ideas, slowly building.

I am thinking about how much is revealed about the human soul and heart and mind in the form called the interview. I am thinking about how when it goes right, and when there is a meeting of brains, a sort of sweet, smart knowledge is generated that can only happen in that form.

 

A Tourist Flight Crashes in Antarctica: Hundreds of Rolls of Film, Human Perceptions, and What It Means for Seeing Climate Catastrophe

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The Barne Glacier, and in the distance, the world’s southernmost active volcano: Mt Erebus

When NZ Flight 901, on a tourist flyover to the Ross Sea in Antarctica from New Zealand, vanished from the airwaves 40 years ago this month, there remained hope the plane would yet make it back. That the silence meant the airliner’s comms had failed but they would make it back. The plane and all 257 people on that DC-10 would make it back. As night fell, people held onto that hope and residents of New Zealand’s South Island were told to turn on their porch lights,  to create an illuminated path to guide the plane back to Christchurch.

When I arrived in New Zealand as a research scholar in the Antarctic humanities, it struck how this story was not told in any of the Antarctic museums. The crash had reverberated across the country for years — and I met many, many Antarcticans who had either known passengers or who had been part of the recovery effort. Yet it was not considered a public story. In fact, when I asked about the crash, when I started digging into materials about the crash at archives, it was met with tinge that I was a tad vulgar to do so.

I then spent months searching archives in New Zealand towns and cities to parse a story of  a horrific Antarctic tourist disaster — particularly eery and haunted research — no surprise given that I was looking at records of a catastrophe and the subsequent lengthy inquiry.

Erebus Flt 901: Litany of Lies launches November 18 and it brings back many memories for me. Chapter 11 in my book, The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica looked at the crash through the lens of archival research and interviews.

Instead, I focused on the materiality of the investigation and then how the story was told in books, in the news, and in a handful of small exhibitions.

Many nights, from my home in the hills of Lyttelton, New Zealand, I would stare out the window at the busy port, and try to parse the facts as stated. There were so many weird aspects.

On one hand, there were hundreds of rolls of film, taken by the passengers in the hours proceeding the crash. They were tourists, they were all snapping away. I wrote about the look and feel of these images, which were shot from those tiny plane windows, which often appear in the photos, framing the blue and white ice landscape below.

As I read and re-read the expert testimony on the case. I kept coming back to the words of one of the witnesses, Professor Ross Henry Day, an expert in human perception. He talked about how humans might not see a 12,000-thousand-foot volcano in their path.

I wrote, “Before he gave his opinions, he studied passenger photographs and the meteorological conditions at the time of the accident.

“He said that the effects of white out are insidious in the extreme. Even on the ground the effects are not recognized by the affected individual until a gross error has been made, such as walking into a snow bank or falling into a hole.

“But understanding what means to not see in white out required a further explanation of a concept he called the mental set.  What can we see in poor visibility conditions, he reasoned, was determined in large part by the expectations of the observer. Thus, as we scanned a landscape, certain aspects of it were privileged over others for more detailed attention. The final step, then, was for the observer to interpret the selected material.

“To put it another way, we cannot see what we are not looking for, or when our physical means of seeing diminishes during white out, the mental set takes over. What we expect determines what we perceive.”

This insight has stayed with me particularly as I think and write more about climate catastrophe and ecologies these days. I wonder if this is not somehow why we don’t act to do more to stop emissions, to eat less meat, to slow down our hyper-capitalist markets? Perhaps it is a question of the mental set in the end and not being able to see what we do not believe because in the case of climate and shifting ecologies, we look out the window and it is yet still a beautiful day.

A Fire Makes Its Own Weather

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Or some thoughts for my talk at the

2019 Re-Imagining End of Life in San Francisco

My pal Mara Holt Skov invited me to present the work of the ECOPOESIS Movement at Re-Imagining End of Life, city-wide gatherings from Oct 24 – Nov 2, 2019, in San Francisco. So I sat down today to prepare my talk. I got lost in my thoughts and before I knew it, the sun was setting over the Pacific. But it was the unusual orange-sherbet glow on my wall that caught my attention. The smoke from the Kincade fire, burning in Sonoma for five days and expected to burn at least until Nov 7, had amplified the colors in eery ways.

I am writing a talk that thinks about David Bowie’s song “Fashion” from Scary Monsters, and how he was responding to what was called the New Romantic movement in London, from about 1978 to 1980. The bands dressed in ruffled shirts,  nun-habit sorts of jackets, had architectural or flouncy hair, sported extreme make-up, the more outrageous the look, the better, all carefully pulled together for effect. Spandau Ballet, Talk Talk, Duran Duran, among others. Their sound was electro dance and they were in conversation with David Bowie’s remarkable spirit of reinvention.

I was thinking about reinvention and thinking of the 1980s and how in 1988, James Hansen testified to the US Congress that there was clear evidence of global warming. And how we needed to pay attention to our contribution, as humans, to re-shaping the Earth’s atmosphere. And we needed to act.

Of course, we heard this and then we did nothing. We kept eating foods from the agro-businesses, burgers and crops grown with ever-more intensive chemical helpers. We kept driving our cars, and in fact in America, the cars got bigger and pounded out more CO2. We did not build strong public transit options. We celebrated the extraction industries, the mining, by buying and indulging in their products to fuel our homes and businesses. We just kept right on burning our little fires, as it were. Then we all fell headfirst into the dream and lie of the tech bros and started burying our faces in screens. Who had time to worry about global warming! The systems were so complex it was impossible to see a way out. Wasn’t someone else working on it, too?

This leads us to a question, so shall we look at it? If we think about the song “Fashion,” we see Bowie responding to the New Romantics who were in turn responding to him. He has a particular point of view: He refers to the goon squad, we are the goon squad, that dictates a particular fashion behavior, and it seems he is not entirely on board. I have read interpretation that this strict adherence to the outrageous for the sake of the outrageous, he felt may have been saying, it was akin to a sort of cultural fascism. And he wanted us to look at it.

So what does this have to do with ecologies or end of life? Well, let’s say the discussion is how we all adhere to certain stories of our reality, how we see what we are all getting up to? That we can agree there are hard-sided realities in fact — like the Pacific Ocean is a reality.

Then there are our shared stories of how things are, more like the borders we draw between countries. Borders are a fiction that we all agree on. When we start disagreeing with these stories of how things are, the extreme end is, of course, revolution.

I think what ECOPOESIS is inviting us to do is far from revolution but it is indeed a form of revolt.

With ECOPOESIS, we have invited people to gather together with us to think about ecological topics and to make what we call “embodied messaging” about them.

When we first met in April, we gathered around one writer’s ideas and then we made expressions of how we feel about the times in which we live, using the text and the making to shape feelings and responses.

But before the final works were made, we spent hours in the morning focusing on another organizational tactic, which asked people to define three words that were occupying our minds: Remain, Resist, Retreat. ((In fact, we could have used any of the “re–” words we had gathered for our list. Recreate. Renovate. Reshape.))

What I am thinking I might talk about during my ECOPOESIS paper for Re-imagining end of life, is how now is the time to re-think our stories of how things are. And to tell better stories, stories that have more power and accuracy based on our shifting ecosystems and real needs to adapt and change, perhaps very quickly.

How we can push away the onslaught of apocalyptic visions of the looming future, a future where all of us, including humans, go extinct.

Or go to Mars.

Or get new AI headsets to allow us to think more quickly and adapt faster, or whatever the plan is in that department.

I am thinking that all revolts start as thoughts and then they become embodied. You refuse to give up your seat on a bus. You march to the sea to get salt. You stop going to school on Fridays to protest inaction on climate change.

I will publish the talk here.

 

 

ECOPOESIS: The Beauty of Embodied Conversation or…I don’t want you alone and terrified when you think about climate change

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I want to share some ECOPOESIS Movement thinkings and feelings that came before, during, and after a recent talk I gave at Maldives National University. Every time I talk about the ECOPOESIS Movement, I fall deeper into what it is inviting us to do as humans.

<<<<There were close to 180 people in the MNU auditorium that night – architects, designers, politicians, university administrators, faculty, and many many students — and that was so beautiful — they came to hear the headliner act, my brilliant colleagues from California College of the Arts, Margaret Ikeda and Evan Jones, who were presenting their work as part of BUOYANT ECOLOGIES. My work with ECOPOESIS is part of the Architectural Ecologies Lab at CCA, founded with Adam Marcus, also an architect and someone who sometimes works with ice.  I was honored to be there, to share some words about ECOPOESIS. We were also humbled by the fact former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed attended; President Nasheed offered key leadership to the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2008 and continues to be a global thought leader and inspiration around climate. >>>>

((Adam, Chris Falliers, also an architect, and I founded ECOPOESIS at CCA in 2018-19 and the idea is beautifully simple. We have three more years of ECOPOESIS activities, so please reach out if you interested in joining.))

ECOPOESIS: Confronting//Confronting Our Demons

Let’s call the times we live in Confronting Our Demons. But as we confront our Demons, something else, unexpected happened: The search for solutions became part of the problem.

Stay with me, please, while I explain. Discussions about how horrible humans are and our disgusting waste problems have elevated to a grotesque level. I am often in these discussions and I hear my own words and think, Oh my god! How awful I sound! I engage in a caricature of a discussion, often including only the most rarefied group.

The ECOPOESIS Movement is about re-focusing our dialogues, our chats, about the process of speaking to and hearing each other.  It is about how we don’t need to be alone and terrified, it is about how we can create circles of people as a means and an end in and of themselves. We can create messages we can share with each other to hold the terror at bay.

A key part of these discussions is how we use our hands and creativity to connect.

ECOPOESIS is braided activities, making and talking, and we draw, write, cut, paste, create audio and video, so the conversations are embodied. We edge closer to some realizations about our realities and how we understand what our realities are and what they might be.

ECOPOESIS is about feeling. How do you feel about climate change? Our feelings about climate, life on Earth, and all the tentacles that emerge from climate discussions — racism, speciesism, misogny, hate speech, economic justice, and on and on.

The ECOPOESIS Movement is about leveling the field, a place where we can look at and feel these complex feelings while creating embodied messages.

Some people may feel that they want to scream. That’s OK. Screaming is a good, artful, and biological response. The messages we collectively make help us decide what sort of postures we might want to get into as humans.

Remain, resist, retreat, were our three, key words shaping the group chats of ECOPOESIS 1, in April, 2019. These RE- words allowed us to give shape to our discussions. Each gathering will focus on RE- words.

The ECOPOESIS Movement is also about playing in language that emanates from ideas of LOVE.

What do we love enough to take care of?

Do you love yourself, your partner, your dog, your teaspoon, your oceans, your birch trees, your Milky Way, your plastic, your satellites enough to take care of them?

<<<<<I want to acknowledge how generous these architects are with me, and how much they teach me each and every day I am with them. They see the world with such specific imaginaries — thinking about ways to create forms to help us all, humans and non-humans, survive the Sixth Mass Extinction. How’s that for a work brief?>>>>>

 

But How Do You Feel? July 10, Ganges, France

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***This is the third in a series of posts tracing some thoughts and notes from my July 2019 trip around the world. I stopped for two weeks in France followed by two weeks in The Maldives. Very different ecosystems, very different vibes. Many moments of clarity and feelings — about ecologies, climate change, life with other humans and non-humans. One of the best things I heard came from a Swedish designer at the residency in France, as our group, up late, talking, talking, talking in the still (heat-wave) night: “But how do you feel?”  What do we feel as we head deeper into the sixth mass extinction, sitting in a very old market town in the Cevennes, in baking heat? How do the rest of us talk about being ecological — away from theory, science, philosophy, technological solutions, ecological artists? What does it mean to be human in these times? Is it a scream? A dance? A long, loud laugh?

We are in Ganges as the huge heatwave (round 1) begins to abate. But. It is still stifling and so most days we work in the early hours, thinking largely about large-scale, participatory design projects — from edible forests, to refugee resettlement, to urban food systems. My own contribution to this conversation is ECOPOESIS.

My own thinking about this movement is being nudged along by the brilliant John Thackara and Kristi Van Riet, who once ran Doors of Perception out of Amsterdam. A lot of their insights will serve to up-end my internal gyroscope about how people come together.

They are at home now in Ganges, in a 17th-century manse with many nooks for gathering and talking. The idea of ECOPOESIS is to create dialogue around climate change — and what we are finding is that people are eager to share their feelings about this. There are so many feelings to feel. There are so many ways to come at this — philosophically etc. One evening in Ganges, I presented the project rather informally to a group that included Danish technologists. The group was quite intent on trying to understand what ECOPOESIS is — and really helped me learn that I need to use words like “process” and “solution” (we are a process, we are not trying to be a center for creating solutions) — and I felt a moment of almost cartoonish “DOH!” Why? Because it is so easy to get caught in the rabbit hole of the process, entangled in larger aspirations, and to use language that does not necessarily warm and draw in the listener. Which is particularly odd because the project is about dialogues, which means hearing. How did I not hear the lack of accessibility in our language? I also started to think about, based on John and Kristi’s insights — that we might be slightly off our mark in how we initially designed ECOPOESIS. That is, how can we have more events with fewer people — rather than one event, as we did April, 2019, with a few dozen people and a specific intellectual “thought leader” — offering us guiding principles? We have an opportunity to better understand what it means to have feelings about ecologies — and climate change — across smaller-scale events, largely located outside, en plein air. This shift fascinates me, as a writer. One of our goals is to have publications emerge from our work — so if that is the case, then why not meet more frequently, in a more scaled way?

One fascinating thoughts  we all share and come back to — how we can get to talking about ecologies and all the tentacles, economic justice, misogyny, racism, outside of the halls of privilege — like the Academy, like San Francisco, like a design retreat in a small market town in France? Back in SF, we are being crushed by gentrification and economic warfare against all but the extremely wealthy. Gentrification cannot be “conquered” but we need to look at the bizarre irony of being in a place long known for its innovative and discursive cultures and what we have now.

So. One of the insights is that in order to make this movement, this ECOPOESIS, we need to stay in motion, we need to stay vulnerable, and we need to stay close to the edge of hope. And we have to deliver better words. We need better words to better describe what it means to be human (and non-human) in these times.