I am working together with my friend and colleague Aya Nassar on a new project on ‘holes’. We have a blog, which you can visit here, and we are organising an academic workshop and an art exhibition with two very talented artists from the New School (NYC): Jenny Perlin and Heide Fasnacht. For the workshop, we are still looking for submissions (video, performance, photographs, papers etc.). I am pasting the call below, please feel free to disseminate to interested friends (and/ or enemies):

University of Warwick, Coventry (United Kingdom)

Friday, 19 May 2017

“ To dig, to drill , to burrow, to punch, to enlarge, to fill up, to fall in, to jump over, to look through, to hide in- all of these, and indeed many others, are things we do with, around, inside, and through holes.”

“A hole is there where something isn’t.”

 Casati and Varzi, Of Holes and Other Superficialities

What happens when ground gives way?

Sinkholes are constantly appearing. At least; there has been an increase in media attention over their globally growing number. Sinkholes describe geologically formed depressions or holes in the ground caused by either suffusion or karst processes leading to a collapse of the surface. They can appear naturally, but increasingly seem to be man-made as a result of more diversified subterranean uses. Their increasing number destabilizes urban, political and social infrastructure; it also raises profound metaphysical questions. In this workshop we attempt to look at sinkholes, as a lens through which we can ponder on situations of a vanishing of the ground beneath our feet. Holes can be seen as the absence of geographic materialities, loss, gaps, and collapse of meaning. Holes can also be interpreted as potential sites of openings, creativity, and reconstruction of new or recovered meaning.

We invite contributions that engage with the question of holes; a question, we believe, that can only be thought of through a multidisciplinary lens. We look for a conversation among artists, philosophers, geographers, academics in Sociology, Politics, Literature and Theatre and Performance Studies. The workshop will be held in parallel with an art exhibition at  Warwick University, Coventry Arts. The exhibition will feature segments of Heide Fasnacht’s Suspect Terrain and Jenny Perlin’s One Hundred Sinkholes, and is part of a larger effort to make holes relevant as a subject and site of learning and research.

We invite interested contributors to send a 300 word (or shorter) abstract, and a brief biographical note to Marijn Nieuwenhuis (m.nieuwenhuis@warwick.ac.uk) and Aya Nassar (a.m.i.nassar@warwick.ac.uk)by March 20, 2017. Besides paper presentations;  alternative contributions such as performance, videos, drawings, pictures (etc.) are warmly welcomed.

The workshop and the exhibition are funded by the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS), University of Warwick, and a PTF Professional Development Fund from The New School.

Kasia Molga, Breathing Invisible Dust

Kasia Molga is a media artist who recently teamed-up with air pollution scientist Professor Frank Kelly  (and colleagues from King’s College London). Their collaborative project entitled “The Human Sensor” comprises a set of illuminated clothing that is “worn by performers to reveal changes in urban air pollution.” From the website of the Invisible Dust project which helped realise the collaboration :

Molga has designed the clothing so that it changes colours with variations of air pollutant gases. For example as PM10 increases the colour of the costume may become red. The air pollution measurements are taken a few hours before by the scientists. This data is then fed into the wearables so that the colours reveal the air pollution that you are breathing in on the street you are walking along. The performers mask also detects the performers breathing in real time so that the colours fade in and out with the performers breathing rhythms. (Invisible Dust)

The idea of making the invisible (particles) visible is something that I have tried to do in a recent publication (entitled: “breathing materialities“). Much of what academics write, however, remains contained within the narrow realm of the University. The artist has arguably much more power to visualise and politicise the effects of particle pollution.

The big challenge we have is that air pollution is mostly invisible. Art helps to makes it visible. We are trying to bring air pollution into the public realm. Scientific papers in journals work on one level, but this is a way to bring it into the street where the public is (King’s College senior air quality analyst, Andrew Grieve in the Guardian)

Making the abstraction of air concrete is for more than one reason a political project. It should be remembered that around 7 million people die prematurely each year from toxic pollution. That number is likely to rise rather than fall in the future. The vast majority of these deaths primarily come from urban centres in “developing” countries, especially India and China are known to suffer. To know what one breathes is perhaps an even more fundamental issue than knowing what one eats. And yet, few of us have an idea of the materialities that sustain and damage our bodies every second of the day. Being able to measure the toxicity of the air should be a human right, I think.


One of the objectives of the Invisible Dust project is to make particle pollution visible through the means of technology and art. Molga explains the motivations for her Human Sensor project:

I started thinking about the fact that because of the rising temperatures and also rising populations, especially in urban environments, things are happening, which we can’t see, but they will of course affect our bodies very drastically … It’s not just a display of the air quality, but it’s about also displaying something so invisible and ephemeral and very important for us to be alive as human breathing (in Hartford Courant).

The idea of caring for the breath by making it visible and felt is something that French feminist Luce Irigaray has propagated already some time ago in her wonderful book Forgetting of the Air. I am currently working on a chapter in an edited volume of the Slovenian thinker Lenart Skof and the philosopher Petri Berndtson. The book brings together geographers, philosophers, medical practitioners and artists and is, similar to the Invisible Dust project, a good example of how different disciplines converge on the subject (and practise) of breathing. Although I have intermittently been working on the breath for a couple of years now, it remains (and will always be) fascinating to see how something so simple can be so utterly complicated and beautiful. Inspirational, if you pardon the pun

Of course, the Invisible Dust project is not the first cross-disciplinary project on breathing and atmospheric materiality. Last year academics and artists came together for the launch of the wonderful Life of Breath project. I did not visit the event but the website gives you an idea of the wealth of creativity and originality of the contributions.

Beached Whales (and little humans)

Beached whales were regarded as significant phenomena, not because Early Modern proto-environmentalists galvanised a populist empathy for so striking and unusal a loss of life, but because beachings were a part of the folklore, seen as bad omens and associated with disasters and tragedies (BibliOdyssey)

“Three dead sperm whales washed up on a beach in Lincolnshire are believed to be from the same pod as a whale that died in Norfolk” (BBC, 2016)

File:Jan Saenredam03.jpg
Beached Wale near Beverwijk, Jan Saenredam, 1602 (Rijksmuseum)
Een Gestrande Potvis bij Beverwijk, Jacob Matham, 1602 (The British Museum)
Cagelot of Potwalvis, Cornelis van Noorde, 1764 (Royal Museums Greenwich)
Gestrande Walvis bij Berkhey, Jacob Matham (after a no-longer extant image of Hendrick Goltzius), 1598, (Metropolitan Museum of Art, see also Rijksmuseum)
Coloured version of Matham’s picture (via)
Image:  German School - Dead whale
Ein Grosser Wallfisch, Matthaus Merian the Younger, 17th century (Private Collection)
Gezicht op Scheveningen, Hendrick van Anthonissen, 1641, (Fritzwilliam Museum)
The Spermacaeti Whale brought back to Greenland Dock, 1762 (New York Library and National Maritime Museum)
Dead Whale, unknown photographer, 1919 (Private Collection)
Dead Whale, unknown photographer, 1910 (Zeeuwse Bibliotheek)


Jenny Perlin’s One Hundred Sinkholes

(“Installation view, 100 Sinkholes’, Jenny Perlin, from: simonprestongallery.com)

Jenny Perlin is another talented artist whose recent work focuses on the phenomenon of sink holes. The project entitled One Hundred Sinkholes was showcased in New York (2015) and Berlin (2014). Most of Perlin’s work, also this one, is shot on 16mm film.

In her sink hole project she “takes the increasing global phenomenon of sinkholes as a point of departure; mining the sudden collapse of the earth’s surface as a metaphor for unexpected gaps, cognitive failures and chance detours” (Simon Preston Gallery). Sink holes seem to be presented here as ‘events’ in the philosophical meaning of the word. Following Whitehead, they are encounters with the world.

Universal history is the history of contingencies, and not of necessity. Ruptures and limits, and not continuity. For great accidents were necessary, and amazing encounters that could have happened elsewhere, or before, or might never have happened (Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, 2004: 154)

We discern some specific character of an event. But in discerning an event we are also aware of its significance as a relatum in the structure of events… The most simple expression of the properties of this structure are to be found in the our spatial and temporal relations. A discerned event is known as related in this structure to other events whose specific characters are otherwise not disclosed in that immediate awareness expect so far as they are relata within the structure (Whitehead in The Concept of Nature, 2004: 52)

Sink holes constitute however a particular set of events. They seem to be different than other events because they present themselves as groundless voids. They reveal as much as suspend familiar relations to time and space. They present themselves as empty and void, deficient of both time and space. They are the more-than-symbolic reminders of the emotional and intellectual difficulties we face when trying to understand the contingency and fluidity of reality. Cora Diamond, commenting on Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Six Young Men‘, describes this as the “Difficulty of Reality”:

What interests me… is the experience of the mind’s not being able to encompass something which it encounters (Diamond “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy”, link to book chapter)

What is intriguing about Perlin’s project is that she actually tries to make sense of these holes by filling them up with geometry and colour.

Forming the preface of the show, Perlin methodically and systematically catalogues one hundred individual sinkholes, sourced from online data. Undermining their monumental scale, each sinkhole is reproduced as a small work on paper, abstracted into geometric line and color. In addition, a 16mm film titled 100 Sinkholes renders the same images in graphite, each insistently filling the emptiness of the void. As a sinkhole emerges, it quickly disappears into the unsteady rhythm of the animation. An accompanying film titled Inks, rendered in black marker, ferociously loops, gradually destroying the film in the process (Simon Preston Gallery)

She has made the video available for online viewing

To be continued

Heide Fasnacht ‘Suspect Terrain’

Heide Fasnacht is an American sculpting artist working on the aesthetic representation of natural and man-made disasters. Her interest in sink holes got the attention of my research student who, in her turn, informed me about her work.

Fasnacht in an interview states:

My interest in sinkholes was precipitated by the destruction of buildings and art through various means, such as weather, war, and iconoclasm, and I decided to start looking at the aftermath of those events…  I am interested in shaky structures, such as the economy, cultures, and architecture, and their transformation into materials of transitional states, like collapse.

I particularly appreciate the way she compares social structures such as the economy and culture with environmental  ones. They both seem deceivingly stable and solid but are intrinsically prone to implosion and catastrophe. Her latest project has a fascinating title, Suspect Terrain, which I hope to explore in more detail for and in my talk at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) later this year. The venue of the artwork explains that it “details the creation and aftermath of a sinkhole.”

The title references John McPhee’s In Suspect Terrain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition, 1983), which offers a narrative of the earth through the geological lens of plate tectonics (Socrates Sculpture Park)

Heide Fasnacht(Taken from: heidefasnacht.com)

I found a short interview with her talking about the project.

There are several, or maybe even a lot of things that draw my attention here. The work is conceptually very rich! The integration of the house and the reference to dwelling and memories immediately reminded me of Heidegger’s attention to the concept of home as a place of dwelling.

A house can easily be a metaphor for the self (from the video)

(from: socratessculpturepark.org)

However, where Heidegger talks about the need to retain an essence of home, Fasnacht is more than happy to await the construction which comes after the destruction. This dialogue between ideas of permanency (being) and change (becoming) is retold by her story of the sad man and the playing children in the background who climb over and re-claim the sculpture to make it their own new playground.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a lot of Fasnacht’s ideas derive from architectural thought. She cites both Koolhaas’ work and Venturi Learning from Las Vegas as sources of influence.

To be continued