Andy Weir. Deep Decay – Into Diachronic Polychromatic Material Fictions
Beyond debates around ethics of responsibility to future generations, artist and writer Andy Weir argues that what is invoked is a more radical futurity, where human thought confronts its contingency alongside nuclear timescales. What specific knowledge can art practices give us in this context? What are their potentials and problems? And what could this mean for the historical conditions of ‘contemporary art’?
Text Andy Weir
It begins with a framing of formlessness. Mist or fog drifts in front of and around the camera. Surrounding forest sounds are intensified, becoming part of the hum of the plant. The camera tracks slowly from a road through penetrated granite or argillaceous limestone, while a disembodied voice connects the images. Its addressee is uncannily invoked, a “you” of the future, called into being from an imagined “we” of now. “This place should not be disturbed”, it cautions through a whisper, “this place is not a place for you”. Ignoring this, the camera moves on, sweeping across incised rock with mechanical crackle, sketching a landscape both invested with desire and radically indifferent to your gaze.
This is the opening of the 2010 film Into Eternity. It documents research at the Onkalo deep geological repository site in Finland, one of a number of sites currently being built or planned around the world for the long-term isolation and containment of radioactive materials. The voice points to the temporal confusion inherent to the project, opening questions of an ethics of responsibility to an unknown future. This has been discussed as a semiotics of communication across generations, through the development of “markers” for the sites, a task picked up and developed by artists such as Cecile Massart.1
Massart’s work, taking forms of projection, models, sketches, collaborations, and consultations, alludes to the complex nature of repository sites—bound up with contested speculative design, while rooted in the material reality of a stochastic decay process and mineral ray absorption. Art plays an important role in this context, while also necessarily being subject to interdisciplinary transformation.
As Massart’s work “in the prehistory of transmission” also alludes to, however, this throw into the future can be extended further.2 Indeed, if repository design is to remain synchronous with the material fact of radiation, then it must be extended much further. The half-life of uranium-238, which makes up the majority of spent nuclear fuel, for example, is 4.46 billion years. This almost mirrors the 4.5 billion years from now speculatively proposed in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1991 work The Inhuman as time of the explosion of the sun, the consuming of philosophy and the terrestrial horizon.3 More immediately, the next ice age is predicted in between 6,000 and 20,000 years, while the Onkalo site is designed for 100,000 years of storage.4 Bearing the facts of these material timescales in mind, sites are designed “without future maintenance”, probing into a future where human engineers and scientists may no longer exist to monitor and control operations.5 The repository landscape captured with lingering shot and track in Into Eternity is one ultimately of complete indifference to its photographers and their cameras. As philosopher Ben Woodard has pointed out, the radical futurity invoked by the eco-crisis remains largely wedded to an anthropocentric horizon—understood in terms of “our children” and future generations.6 The deep geological repository, however, embodies not only a call to future generations, captured as a narrative of protection in the film, but also a more radical confrontation with the death of human thought, and so its contingency alongside nuclear timescales.
Through this projection of a future without maintenance, the site invokes a temporality indifferent to human care, that of the continuum of “deep time”. Its thinking and material construction is premised upon registering and modelling conditions, in the present, not entirely dependent on the priority of their human sensors. If the more radical futurity of the eco crisis, alluded to by Woodard, can be understood as the further and scientific removal of the human from the centre of the universe, then the deep geological repository registers and deepens this germ of trauma. This evokes the “truth of extinction” discussed in philosopher Ray Brassier’s Nihilism Unbound as “that which levels the transcendence ascribed to the human”—a non-anthropocentric awareness of the death of thought, which forces a disenchantment with our own privileged position at the centre of a world for us.7 Within an art context it is useful to return to and re-emphasise this as positive speculative opportunity, an “invigorating vector of intellectual discovery rather than a calamitous diminishment”,8 suggesting not the wallowing in melancholy affects of despair of annihilation and the alluring beauty of a paradoxical world-without-us, but as call for extensions of knowledge through new experimental material practices, building new collectives of augmented human and non-human agencies, and demanding reinvention of the Earth where, “cognition grasps a real not of its own making, and… its capacities may be reshaped as a function of that real”,9 and as Brassier summarises in more recent work, “thought is embedded in the reality which it seeks to know”.10
This leads, then, to my main question: that of the role of art in imagining the deep geological repository as nuclear thing opened by deep time. What specific knowledge could art practices give us in this context? What are their potentials and problems? At the same time, and inversely, how could this temporal vector perhaps point to limits of and infect that set of conditions historically knows as “contemporary art”?
The deep geological repository has acted as lure for a number of artistic projects. Artist duo Smudge Studio, for example, approached Onkalo in their project Containing Uncertainty (2010). Their work suggests a fascination with the site, described as a space of imagination “at the edges of cognition”, alluding to the problems and pleasures of grasping cosmic scales in the human mind.11 The work is fragmentary and multiple in its approach, reflecting this difficulty in cognising the space. It includes short essays, discussions, bullet point lists, Gneiss bedrock, a copper bracelet, bentonite clay models, and a schematic diagram of the repository architecture. What is it though that is attempted to be grasped through these allusions? The repository, as Gabrielle Hecht has argued of “nuclearity” generally,12 and as Smudge Studio here suggest, is a complex and contested “thing” with wide-ranging political effects, “designating something as nuclear – whether in technoscientific, political or medical terms – carries high stakes. Fully understanding those stakes requires layering stories that are usually kept distinct.”13 As Hecht’s analysis shows, these stories are of asymmetric, power-inflected relations between intertwined human and non-human entities, including topologies of inside and outside, global markets, sandstone, ore, Neodymium, mined yellowcake, the occupational health of mine workers in eastern Gabon, colonial exploitation, and so on, which coalesce around the materials-for-storage. The deep geological repository, as site of activity and its operational conditions, presents a specific kind of problem, one that necessitates what Jussi Parikka has called for in a media archaeology that he aligns with art practice, “the investigation of the mineral and substrate materialities as well as the materialities of production, management of global labour processes, and various other materialities that are always entangled”.14 Such entangled materialities include my focus here—relations between human thought in the present, and the immense scales of so-called deep time—stretching back, while extending into projected and contested futures.
Uses of the term deep time can be traced to late-eighteenth century geology, attributed to James Hutton’s analysis of the geochemistry and angular unconformity at Siccar Point in Scotland. In his Deep Time of the Media, Siegfried Zielinski discusses an illustration from Hutton’s 1778 Theory of the Earth, which shows slate deposits plunging into the depths of the Earth, arguing that, through the visualisation of immense timescales, this image can be considered as stunning as Copernican depictions of the solar system in dislodging the Earth from the centre of the universe, “the idea of geological deep time is so foreign to us we can only understand it as metaphor”, Zielinski goes on to argue.15 These points are not unconnected, to be “stunned” by deep time is to focus on the attendant sense of human awe and wonder at such cosmic timescales, “the mind seemed to grow giddy looking so far into the abyss of time”, while metaphor suggests limiting knowledge by drawing it back into existing linguistic categories.16 This affect of wonder, reflected in the opening of Into Eternity, intensified and elongated through the slow track of the camera, the hushed narration, and the enveloping flatline drone with punctual crackle, is of course important in the context of Hutton’s Enlightenment deflating of biblical timescales. Solely being struck dumb by an image of the vastness of time, however, suggests, from our current situation, neither a productive position from which to gain knowledge nor to act.17
Rather than journeying “into eternity”, in reality, the deep time of the radiological is neither infinitely vast nor immeasurable. The uranium-238 half-life of 4.46 billion years has been measured, based on the probability of its nucleus to decay over time. This is a time that is difficult to imagine but it is not infinite. It is, in fact, to use a term deployed by philosopher Timothy Morton, a “very large finitude”.18 Morton uses this term to describe what he calls the “hyperobject” as a specific kind of object “massively distributed in time and space”.19 We are immanent to hyperobjects, a claim Morton describes as their quality of “viscosity”—we can have no critical distance from them as we are already immersed within their range. The hyperobject cannot be exhausted by perception, and the more we struggle to distance ourselves from it, the more “stuck” we become.
While the hyperobject can be read as a finite object that is too vast to comprehend individually without technological augmentation, we can build tools to think it as complex abstraction—in this case, deploying techniques such as probability modelling and measuring ionising emission. Such abstractions suggest an important role for aesthetics beyond creating stunning images. Political theorist Nick Srnicek has proposed this in his argument for the importance of an “aesthetics of the interface” in mapping (what could be described as the hyperobject of) current neoliberalism. Srnicek argues for developing Fredric Jameson’s project of the cognitive mapping of capitalism in two stages. Firstly, in an age of algorithmic finance, pre-emptive data capture, off-shore networks, and so on, we must use available tools of technology and mathematics (computer algorithms, simulation models, econometrics, statistical analyses) to “extend cognition beyond sensible parameters of the human”.20 Secondly, to avoid being simply washed over by masses of intractable big data in a form of the technological sublime, we need a modulator between this technological representation of complex objects and the human cognitive system. It is here that he proposes aesthetics as “what sensibly mediates between individual phenomenology and our cognitive maps of global structures.”21 An aesthetics of the interface derives from mathematical representation, rendering it not as impenetrable noise but as cognitively tractable, suggesting “the expansion of sensible possibilities beyond human limitations”22 and inviting the challenge “to design interfaces in such a way that they offer the possibility of manipulating complex systems… the aesthetics of the interface is the mode of operationalising this complex knowledge into local phenomenologically amenable representations.”23
In the context of the repository, its enmeshing in deep timescales can be read not as immeasurable but as a call to augment and develop aesthetics through collective experimentation and technologies. Stuck, art practices cannot separate from the hyperobject to make an image of it in its entirety, but are opened by it, drawing from it.24 The interface does not claim to separate and make an image of the hyperobject, but is immanent to it, nor does it suggest a flat equivalence between connected entities. It is provisional, open to collective modification, and platform for extended human, (or non-humanistic) thought. It can be understood not jut as object but, as method, and art practices can be proposed as developing experimental interface methodologies for the deep geological repository. Artist duo Thomson & Craighead, for example, have proposed a nuclear semiotic totem as temporary index, a counter for representing the decay rate of nuclear waste products,25 developing recent projects using art as a scaling device between big data and subject-amenable representations, including Hello World, a constantly updated measure of the current world population.
Such work raises the question of how to draw on statistical data without only repeating the affective stun of Hutton’s image. An immediate reaction invoked by the work is to be struck with awe at the relation between oneself and immense global scales, an effect that could be described as the “Anthropogenic sublime”.26 This leads to the question, however, of “what’s next?” – how can this impact be drawn upon and extended without being instantiated as a limit?27 It is here that the aesthetics of the interface is important—aesthetics not as art’s description by philosophy, but as the (not entirely exhausted by human) aesthesis of sensing, considering aesthetic experience as structured by material regimes, and having political force. What kinds of subjectivities could be addressed by, modulated and organised around the corner?
Concluding here suggests opening up to further research, as art practices take on tasks of developing such aesthetics, expanding this interface role through specific propositions. I will finish with two examples taken from my own current work. Firstly, The Plureal Deal is a project that sets itself the aim of hypothesising a material history of Plutonium, tracing a timescale from cosmic origins of uranium to billions of years’ futures from within existing narratives and fictions of “the Real”, taken from contemporary corporate promotional culture.28
In attempting to trace Plutonium futures, the work leads to encounters and discussions with repository teams on how such long-term futures are projected. These include computational and mathematical models alongside other strategies, such as risk analysis and scenario planning, algorithmically predicting and staging potentially interruptive events. The material history of the future refracts into multiple provisional “partial models”, with the interface acting as a collecting platform for their laying out and critical reflection.29
Secondly, Pazu-goo, a gooey, collectively modifiable uranium glow-stick waving Pazuzu, the Sumero-Asyrrian demon of contagion, epidemic and dust, is proposed as an intervention into the deep geological repository marker project, addressed to the future.
Through workshops and shared instructions, designs are 3D-printed in Nylon 12, encased in clay tablets and flushed into local water supplies, perhaps later discovered as artefacts, or left to slowly degrade and form new molecular configurations through ingestion and drift. Addressing the question of what it might mean to extend the marker project to an indifferent future without maintenance leads to a focus away from intergenerational communication and onto the literal materiality of the work itself. Through additive printing, Nylon powder is layer-fused from object code, exhibited, then thrown into waste. Following waste circuits, microplastics persist, ingested and accumulated into the bodies and tissues of marine organisms, bloating gastrointestinal tracts. The work continues life as bioplastic assemblage, becoming part of five trillion plastic particles in the Earth’s oceans, while Pazuzu is figured as demonic scavenger of this molecular body:
Each particle of dust carries with it a unique vision of matter, movement, collectivity, interaction, affect, differentiation, composition and infinite darkness—a crystallised data base or a plot ready to combine and react… Pazuzu specialises in scavenging the stratified Earth and its biosphere in the form of dust, which then is uplinked to alien currents flowing in the universe.30
Premised on the strangeness of its guiding idea that waste could just be hidden away in a passive “Earth”, separated from an unaffected “humanity”, the repository marker makes the implausible claim of containing a specific site and duration, proposing to mark a barrier that can’t really exist.31 Pazu-goo, on the other hand, parasites on local sites to become an “anti-marker”. The anti-marker focuses on leakage, non-containment and the speculative potential of future transformations of humans in dynamic relation and alliance with other entities across scales. This is practised not as metaphor or sign, but through its own performative materiality, drifting from dump to sea, navigating from local sites towards a universal ungrounding current of deep time.
Art can be an experimental platform for building multiple “diachronic material fictions” that think the deep geological repository as futurology, excavating its political stake. From one perspective, this is important as artists are stakeholders in an ongoing industry consultation process, demanding critical reflection on what this could mean beyond the instrumentalisation of making seductively stunning images. From another perspective, our understanding of the “contemporary” of contemporary art is subject to traumatic reconfiguration, amplified alongside inhuman scale, refracted through multiple interface methods. Finally, developing the ideas of thinkers such as Parikka, who proposes “concrete and long-term investment in geological times of media as crucial for processes of subjectivation”, we can consider what it means to think production and circulation of these fictions as constitutive of radical, processes of subjectification, opened and cut across by deep time.32 •