Science and Ice: The Changing Sublime in the Frozen North

The Sea of Ice, Caspar David Friedrich, 1832         The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 2008

The Sea of Ice, Caspar David Friedrich, 1832         The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 2008

It’s rather strange, the romance of ice. Strange that a material so hard and cold should seem so alive: so vital and dynamic, so noisy, so busy. Strange and romantic, too, that this lively ice is the pulse of the earth: that the ebb and flow of ice caps dictate the scope of planetary life. In 1818, when Mary Shelley sent Frankenstein’s monster fleeing into the Arctic waste, she had no conception that the poles played such a role in the life of the rest of the globe, but she—like other Romantics—saw something uncannily lively about the frozen region. The uncanny and strange are essential facets of the sublime: the sensation that something terrible is also pleasurable, an overwhelming awe at nature. Despite scientific explanation, this bewildering sublimity persists today—just stand on the shore of a glacier and listen to the ice groan and bubble, crackle and pop.

Looking specifically to the frozen north, my project for PPEH traces the resonance of nineteenth-century Romantic conceptions of the Arctic with twentieth-century scientific conceptions of the region: I historicize the sublime as it changes, but doesn’t fade, over time. My work thus explores how doing science in the Arctic--specifically by northern European meteorologists, oceanographers, and glaciologists--develops over the long twentieth century. When the Arctic emerged as a dynamic region whose changeability, both spatially and temporally, is crucial to understanding the natural history of the earth as a whole. Growing and shrinking ice caps reify the changes of ocean and atmosphere, and through ice cores and ice mapping, the past of the planet is laid bare. But despite an increasingly mechanistic understanding of nature, what kind of nature is found amongst the ice is, I argue, inescapably inflected by these earlier conceptions of the Arctic as sublime. By the twentieth century, monsters may have faded from Arctic imaginaries, but ice retained its sublime capacity to bend space and time, and to dictate life.

Thin-section micrograph of a matrix of             Ice core showing the eruption of the Toba individual ice crystals from the 250-m              supervolcano ~ 700 years ago. depth ~ 800 years old.

Thin-section micrograph of a matrix of             Ice core showing the eruption of the Toba individual ice crystals from the 250-m              supervolcano ~ 700 years ago.
depth ~ 800 years old.

Changing scientific representations of ice, and different uses of ice as a scientific instrument, anchor my work, linking the Arctic as a region across a long timeframe: 1883, when the first International Polar Year (IPY) was held, to 2007, the most recent IPY. I look at scientific illustrations of the Arctic from 1883, aerial photographs of the ice pack from 1931, ice atlases from 1957, ice cores from the 1970s, and seed banking in 2008 to explore how ways of seeing and knowing the Arctic result in a spatially and temporally dynamic “scientific sublime.”

   Illustration of Aurora and landscape of Svalbard,          Aerial photograph of icepack taken first     International Polar Year expedition, 1882-3                    during the polar flight of the Graf                                                                                                        Zeppelin, 1932

   Illustration of Aurora and landscape of Svalbard,          Aerial photograph of icepack taken first     International Polar Year expedition, 1882-3                    during the polar flight of the Graf                                                                                                        Zeppelin, 1932

Ice is vital and lively, and I want my work to be so, too. PPEH provides a space where I can do more than write this project, it is a space where I can experiment with ways of producing it. By engaging with people beyond my discipline and beyond academia, I hope to make my history-heavy research relevant to a wider community. Central to this effort will be engagement with the concept of the anthropocene—the argument that we’ve entered a new geologic era, created by man—in which the poles loom large. The icy bookends of the planet are the harbingers of climate change, places where the effects of a warming planet are brought into sharp relief. How we can see, communicate, and understand climate change is all about how we understand and see nature—a question that lies at the core of my research. Through PPEH, I hope to think beyond scientific representations of climate change, to engage with art and embodiment, with experience and affect. Sound in particular matters in the Arctic (remember that glacier, bubbling and groaning?), and I want to have people hear the sublime Arctic in the anthropocene, too.

Matters of Concern: What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit? Part III

In this series, four of the presenters for Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene reflect on a number of concerns that emerged from the conversations throughout the conference's three days. Representing different fields and academic disciplines, the four women offer various perspectives while pondering the following questions: what might an Ecotopian Toolkit look like? How do “we” build one? What tools might “we” want to include?


Artist rendering of Penrith Lakes, Sydney. Source: Daily Telegraph.

Artist rendering of Penrith Lakes, Sydney. Source: Daily Telegraph.

What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit?

By Jennifer Ferng

I was very impressed with the breadth of cross-disciplinary research represented at the Ecotopian Toolkit conference. I wanted to raise two concepts that might help us think through some of the diverse historical and theoretical contexts articulated by many of the conference participants.

The first concept is an idea borrowed from Science Technology Studies – that of, tinkering – detailed by Karin Knorr Cetina and highlights how technologies have been adjusted to fit the particular needs of users. Here it is not so much specific tools being proposed by participants that is important but how scholars, artists, and activists begin to make small or large improvements or adaptations to such tools that matter most. This could include artists or scholars making their tools fulfill the objectives of research or users making a tool work with their needs to solve daily problems.

The second concept is a notion of a public – while I think that most conventional definitions address the public as an audience for the dissemination of research, here at this conference, public engagement and/or participation with environmental thinking and/or environmental studies has been crucial. A public can be useful in understanding how a plurality of voices, opinions, and positions can counteract dominant power patterns (and counterpublics to provide space for marginalized views and disenfranchised participants).


Jennifer Ferng is Lecturer in Architecture at the University of Sydney. She received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds professional degrees in design from Princeton University and Rice University.

Her talk, "Outback/City: Anthropocenic Tools for Penrith Lakes in Western Sydney" argued for architecture as a tool that connects the past histories of the site with present conservation plans and future use of the region as a tourist destination.

 

Matters of Concern: What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit Part II

In this series, four of the presenters for Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene reflect on a number of concerns that emerged from the conversations throughout the conference's three days. Representing different fields and academic disciplines, the four women offer various perspectives while pondering the following questions: what might an Ecotopian Toolkit look like? How do “we” build one? What tools might “we” want to include?


WHAT'S IN AN ECOTOPIAN TOOLKIT? 

BY JENNY PRICE

A “toolkit” of course brings to mind its predecessors—perhaps most notably, the Whole Earth Catalog. And while toolkits for tackling environmental problems have generally emphasized technology—what technology can we use and create (in the case of the Whole Earth Catalog, what low-tech technologies)—one of the most interesting things about the toolkit we’ve assembled at this shindig, I think, is the degree to which it does not showcase the importance of technology. It deposes it somewhat, really. Technologies are important, but they occupy a lesser place. They have less agency.

A lot of the proposed tools instead emphasize the importance of ideas and structures—of environment, economy, and so on—and how they reinforce one another. The tools target the assumptions we most take for granted, about our relationships with nature and one another, that fuel and will continue to fuel life in the Anthropocene. They ask what useful technologies might be, but they emphasize the greater importance of questions about who designs technologies, who uses them, why, who benefits, who doesn’t, and so on.

The toolkit de-emphasizes the “We” thinking of previous toolkits—and looks closely instead at “Who.”

On the whole, the toolkit also, really intriguingly, tends to de-emphasize innovation—and instead on insists on revealing what’s here, revealing what’s invisible, recovering, collecting, maintaining.

Take climate change, for example—and how fundamentally different these tools are from those that, say, James Hansen brought to the table: a carbon tax; “the market” as “not a myth” and “a scientific fact”; as well as new energy technologies. This toolkit arms us to understand how “the market” is not a “scientific fact,” that it is in fact a set of myths. It reveals the invisible myths and narratives that have helped make “the market” such a powerful idea and ultimately such a powerful driver of climate change. And by making the invisible visible, it can insist on new and less destructive narratives.

“The market,” like technology, has a lot less agency—than people—than in many previous toolkits.

What are these tools? They emphasize language, art, and projects that allow people to re-experience relationships with nature and one another.   They showcase the powers of play, laughter, storytelling, new-data-getting, and ways to find and use other and missing voices.

What tools are missing? This toolkit is rich and suggestive—but if you had to answer the question, “What’s not here?”…  well, what’s not here?  I’m sure we could answer that in useful and myriad ways, and just as one suggestion—I think we need more institutional tools. Which, again, pushes some against the WEC-style “all solutions are grassroots solutions” approach. As the artist Fritz Haeg emphasizes, “the best place to be radical is at the center,” and I heartily agree. I think the librarian tool-proposers demonstrated wonderfully why institutional change is so important, by showing us profoundly new ways that libraries are gathering and thinking about data and stories.

Finally, how do you create tools that can speak to the unconverted?—to the folks, just as one example, who insist that “the market” is a scientific fact?—rather than a very specific, historically situated set of stories and relationships and values. That is very difficult. And it might be the toolkit’s biggest challenge of all.


Jenny Price is a public writer, artist, & historian. In 2016-17, she is a Visiting Research Associate at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University-St. Louis.

Price's presentation, “SHTEAM: AN ACRONYM FOR THE ANTHROPOCENE,” drew on the yiddish language and history to argue why the humanities are essential for challenges in and of the Anthropocene. 

Matters of Concern: What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit? Part I

In this series, four of the presenters for Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene reflect on a number of concerns that emerged from the conversations throughout the conference's three days. Representing different fields and academic disciplines, the four women offer various perspectives while pondering the following questions: what might an Ecotopian Toolkit look like? How do “we” build one? What tools might “we” want to include?


Photo Credit: Janette Kim

Photo Credit: Janette Kim

What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit? 

By Janette Kim

We were asked to consider what a toolkit might mean in the context of a book, so I did a quick Google Image search to remind myself how toolkits are set up. They're often red. They’re boxy, and have hinges. Many have foam inserts with little cut-out areas for each tool, in the shape of each object. Toolkits are often equipped with a glove to protect the user from the tools themselves, which might reference many of the points raised throughout this conference—that somewhere between the task at hand and an agent of some kind, then, lie question of the multiple “we’s” that leverage tools, the fashioning of costume as a rhetorical device, and the central role of maintenance in an ecotopian world. Toolkits also have handles. In other words, they’re mobile and un-sited, in a way that resonates with the territories described in the conference over the past couple of days: from gerrymandering and the role of the commons to the idea of adaptive governance.

Interestingly, toolkits have no instructions. (It would be absurd to imagine an instruction manual for a hammer, for example). This might suggest that they operate in undetermined ways, across narratives and ecotopian imaginaries. This might also suggest that tools tap into systems much larger than themselves; systems we have seen this weekend, such as currency, archives, and citizen science networks. In this sense, the toolkit is refreshingly very different from, say, a guidebook or a cookbook, as it lacks prescription or a didactic tone.

Perhaps one potential trap of the toolkit is its instrumentalist or solution-seeking overtone. In contrast, I’m especially interested in a theme that came up several times this week—the theme of erasure—that emerged through the idea of a living ruin, or the selective elimination of devices like the refrigerator as a thought experiment. At the same time, too, I find the reference of the toolkit a refreshingly tangible yet expansive; optimistic yet deadpan point of reference, and one I’ve enjoyed examining with you all at this extraordinary conference.


Janette Kim is our first contributor, whose paper “Win-win: Board Games for a Collective Future” shared interactive board games collectively created to consider questions of housing, urban planning, and social space during times of manmade climate change.

Janette is an architectural designer, researcher, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Janette is assistant professor of architecture and co-director of the Urban Works Agency at California College of the Arts,founding principal of the design practice All of the Above, and founding editor of ARPA Journal, a digital publication on applied research practices in architecture.

Ecologies of Data Part IV: Data Maintenance

Ecologies of Data Part IV: Data Maintenance

In the final contribution to "Ecologies of Data," Mashinka Firunts explores the labor, gendered politics, and affective registers of data maintenance. Firunts asks, "What does the labor of data maintenance look like? How can we visualize what may appear as invisible work?" 

Assembling an #EcotopianToolkit

Assembling an #EcotopianToolkit

A year ago, we asked what tools we need and require in the #Anthropocene, the proposed name for geological epoch when humans are the most potent force in shaping the earth's systems. Throughout the past three days, artists, activists, academics, and professionals, traveled to #Philadelphia to think and imagine together how an #EcotopianToolkit might look and feel. This first attempt at archiving our conversations may prompt their future continuations...