Harmful Side - Effects
Catalogue text: Sub-Systems
by Richard Holt
Catalogue text: In
the Interest of Safety
by Werner Hammerstingl
Harmful Side - Effects
Published by Platform
Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 2000
text: Sub-Systems by
From No Harmful Side - Effects
Published by Platform Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 2000
Two distinct investigations,
brought together by this project, provide a glimpse of the
substrata that founds the urban condition in the early twenty-first
century. Both the timing and the placement of the investigations
are central to the inquiry. Of the many points of entry into
the dialogues inherent in the works of KIT and Rachel Chapman,
those suggested by the location within the subway display
cases are, to me, the strongest. They are dialogues of enclosure,
of underworlds, of biological colonies and contemporary urban
infrastructure. The following brief discussion explores these
concepts as they relate to the work of these two artists.
Chapman samples the air in the
vicinity of the exhibition venue – the fetid and corrupted
atmosphere around a major urban transit zone. Inputs into
this atmosphere include the exhaust fumes and by-products
of trams, trains, cars and trucks along with the bodily human
interaction (sneezing, coughing, pissing, breathing, etc)
in this crowded and poorly ventilated space. The resulting
cultures, actively growing in self-contained environments,
present metaphors on a micro level, biological worlds grown
from the midst of our own extended environmental systems.
By comparison, KIT’s work
focuses on mechanical by-products of a related urban phenomenon.
In this case the airbag technology, that has been a major
'safety' innovation in car design in recent decades, provides
a starting point. Like Chapman's vitrines, airbags are designed
to contain reactions that are potentially destructive. The
high-end explosives used to inflate airbags represent a harnessing
of extreme forces. The component chemicals of the airbag inflation
process are toxic, volatile and not easily disposed of.
I am intrigued by the focus
on containment – the airbags, the biological cultures,
the display cases, the subway space. As notions of time and
distance are transformed by technological advancement, there
are parallels to be drawn between the artist's microbial experiments
and the global ecosystem. When Chapman samples the air that
is breathed by the ten thousand or so commuters who pass daily
through the subway environment, she is sampling a small part
of a planetary environment that is in itself complex, self-contained
and volatile. The twenty-first century begins a period in
which our involvement, on a human level, with global environmental
systems has shifted from theoretical to actual.
By way of illustration, the
system of 'carbon credits' that has grown out of the recent
Kyoto protocols on greenhouse gas emissions is a case in point.
It is the first large-scale example of a real, tradeable,
economic value being placed on the maintenance of the major
natural environmental agents (in this case the carbon depleting
properties of forests). Critics point to the 'carbon credit'
system as a device that allows industrialised nations to avoid
responsibilities. The flip side, argued by its proponents,
is that this is a potentially large source of income for developing
countries and an encouragement for those countries to forego
short term profiteering from the exploitation of such assets.
The viability of trade in 'clean'
air marks a genuine shift to a global redefinition of environmental
issues – the planet as self-contained biosphere. In
this context Rachel Chapman's exploration of microbial systems,
spawned from urban samples and cultures, is symbolically both
potent and disarming. It suggests that systems, though constrained,
are never truly controlled and that notions of balance, upon
which much environmental rhetoric has been based may greatly
oversimplify the problems faced by a system under stress.
I find the language of the works
in this exhibition revealing. KIT's work, like that of Chapman,
directly suggests the language of scientific investigation.
Words like, 'specimen', 'sample' and 'culture' are scattered
through the dialogue that develops around the works in the
exhibition. Such language provides a reminder of the perceived
golden age of Western science and technology during the 19th
century. The consequences of the subsequent period of sustained
rapid development have seen scepticism replace the initial
optimism of that period. These artists have made works that
acknowledge this tension between a reliance on, and a fear
of contemporary scientific achievement.
Utilising the safety systems
of modern transport, KIT's work plugs into mechanistic rather
than biological histories. Both artists work with by-products
of contemporary society, but in the airbag, KIT uses a specified
item, that taps into narratives of speed and motion. In their
popular manifestation these narratives talk of the 'pace'
of contemporary society. How appropriate it is then, that
the airbag is a device designed ostensibly to stop the destructive
forces of motion – but which on closer inspection operates
itself at explosive and potentially dangerous speeds.
By locating these by-product
narratives within a physical substratum of the city, the subversive
connotations are emphasised. Both on the micro level (the
spores of Chapman's fungi) and the macro (KIT's human sized
objects from one of the first great 'modern' industries, car
manufacturing) the by-products at the centre of this project
are clearly not as benign as they might first appear.
Chapman captures the poisonous
breath of the city. Enclosed beneath the surface of the streets
the air is stale. Its circulation is constrained. It contains
elements that we, the city's residents, would prefer to avoid.
The artist forces us to confront them. By contrast KIT's airbags
are saggy, deflated, limp. Having been used once, the volatile
reaction that filled them within milliseconds has dissipated.
They are lifeless. The symbolism is of a clear and perpetual
economy that feeds the paranoia of our comfortable contemporary
condition; the fear of a loss of control. Evidenced by the
recurrence in science fiction and horror cinema of monsters,
microbes and machines, the contemporary apprehension about
loss of control finds a voice in the very environment in which
these genres are often set. Here in Platform2's subterranean
netherworld a group of artworks appear as if in an underground
Of course the Platform
space is also alive with commuters and rather than being secreted
beneath the city, these pieces are part of a public spectacle.
Such is the theatre of contemporary art, particularly where
the familiar rhetoric of site specificity is harnessed within
the textured and often ambiguous discourses of post-modernity.
In this context, subversive dialogues find mainstream audiences.
With this in mind I am left with an overwhelming sense of
the museological nature of this project. Showcases render
the dangerous safe and the strange familiar. They create a
particular dynamic between the audience and the object that
allows for reconsideration of 'difficult' issues. The conceit
of the museum model is that theatrical and scientific narratives
exist simultaneously within a single presentation. This, perhaps,
is the underlying strength of the work of KIT and Chapman;
that the theatricality of installation, the integrity of location
and the conceptual richness of narratives are brought together
text: In the Interest of Safety
From No Harmful Side - Effects
Published by Platform Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 2000
On June 11 this year I was anxious.
I knew death could come strangely and quietly if things went
wrong with an experiment (1) that was beginning on the other
side of the world, in a facility called the Brookhaven National
Laboratory’s ‘Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider’
(the world’s most powerful particle accelerator) in
Long Island, New York. “In theory, RHIC could have triggered
the runaway formation of a poorly understood breed of subatomic
particle known as a ‘strangelet’, which ‘eats’
all matter it encounters, a chain reaction that would consume
everything everywhere”. (2) The monumental audacity
of this project reminds me of the famous activity by Louis
Slotin during the Manhattan project in 1941 termed “tickling
the dragon’s tail” (bringing together two hemispheres
of plutonium and uranium as critically close as possible without
starting a chain reaction). (3) As scientists play with dangerous
toys we, the general public, are often unaware (as no doubt
are they) how close to peril this activity might take us.
Governments that finance and
sanction research in particle physics, and a myriad of equally
dangerous research projects do so under the banner of ‘national
security’. The meme ‘I need security’ has
infected everyone who has the means to do something about
it. Financially and socially advantaged communities articulate
their pursuit of a secure life within a conundrum of contradictory
strategies and technologies. On the one hand they are gravitating
towards sheltered architectures (pun intended) in the form
of the automobile, the secure home, the ‘gated community’
(an entire lexicon of new terms around automotive and domestic
security and safety features has evolved in recent decades),
the multi-function polis and ultimately, perhaps, the off-world
outer space community introduced in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.
On the other hand the same communities actively, or at least
passively support a system which seeks to discover more and
more diverse technological means by which mass extermination
becomes possible. Beyond nuclear we have the cheaper, less
noisy and far more terrifying
biological and chemical military tools of destruction.
We are caught in the monkey
trap (4). We want security, personal, financial, national,
even global, but the very agents, protocols and technologies
we invent for this purpose and to which we cling like life
itself can often leave us in a more vulnerable state. The
task of providing security for the individual and the collective
is not unlike the one given to Sisyphus by the gods: endless,
in essence unproductive and ultimately completely pointless.
This problem brings us to the
specifics of my discourse. The title of the exhibition No
Harmful Side-Effects can be interpreted in a number of ways.
Consistent with my introductory comments I choose to interpret
the title as an alert. If we place a question mark at the
end, we are closer to a useful entry point to discuss these
artistic projects by Rachel Chapman and KIT. ‘No harmful
side-effects?’ can fill us with silent dread because
we have all witnessed a myriad of assurances where apparently
safe and harmless products or conditions ended up compromising
the very condition they were intended to provide.
Most commuters will probably
never even notice these provocative works displayed in a subterranean
passage that feeds into a busy railway station as they hurry
past. I’ve observed them: shrouded in a sagging confidence
in their highly centralized, sterilized, mechanized, urbanized
post-industrial lifestyle. Voluntarily subjects, submitting
to the dumbing down of every important issue by the media,
politicians and big business, they have steeled their hearts
and minds against the provocations of difficult thoughts and
difficult art by cultivating the art of rejection and not
looking. But lets imagine they stop and contemplate (you did).
What is this project all about?
Territory / Boundary / Containment
Microscopically small spores, usually adrift in random,
uncontained journeys, are given a semi-permanent ‘home’
and in this exchange they reveal a great deal. Rachel Chapman’s
fungal spores (5) negotiate boundaries and territory in several
ways. Initially riding the air currents of the atmosphere,
once localized, spores develop growth structures that remind
one of the territorial maps of nations and states. Seemingly
arbitrary lines signifying claim over space are drawn, reinforced
and actively policed. Yet a growing variety of viruses, many
deadly to humans, respect neither boundary nor quarantine.
They come (in Australia’s case) from the North, have
names like the Nipah virus, Japanese Encephalitis, Hendra
virus, Lyssavirus and Menangle virus and piggyback their way
across vast distances on carriers. (6) The spores and viruses
surround us invisibly (an ironic reversal of Foucault’s
description of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon) and we can
only hope that they are benign as they enter our bodies and
symbiose with our system. The recent outbreaks of legionnaires’
disease in Melbourne are a powerful reminder that infections
from airborne microbial molecules can be contracted virtually
anywhere and we are unable to predict with any certainty when
we are at risk and when not.
Those who believe the growing
claims by writers such as Damien Broderick, who assert that
we are well on the way to immortality as we are medically
augmenting and repairing our disease and age prone bodies
(7) (if we happen to belong to the technology and information
rich contingent at least) have these beliefs challenged by
microbial pathogens. To dismiss spores as somehow less dangerous
than viruses is possibly optimistic. Evidence suggests that
spores are capable of causing harm to us and other species.
Despite their worrying potential, the fungal spores cultured
by Rachel Chapman in unusually large petri dishes are not
only fascinating but also beautiful in their strangeness.
This beauty has even captured the mind of scientists. Scientific
American featured a paper two years ago entitled ‘The
Artistry of Micro-organisms’ (9) which commented on
the aesthetic symbiosis between bacteria and environment.
Chapman’s large vitrines which allow environmental phenomena
to negotiate its aesthetic mark-making remind me of Marcel
Duchamp’s decision to collect ‘New York dust’
(1920) as a component for his Large glass. In both cases the
microscopic collects (contextualized and controlled by the
artist’s choice of location, duration and scale) and
makes itself visible as a visual and aestheticized phenomena.
(10) While it is tempting to continue this analogical thread
by forming conceptual relationships between the
mechanical homages by Duchamp’s good mate Francis Picabia
and the exposed mechanical components situated around the
issue of ‘crash’ by KIT, I’ll resist that
(Another) law of thermodynamics: any system expands indefinitely
until it meets resistance
The KIT exhibit which consists
of automotive airbags, launderette lint and seatbelt straps,
as suspending devices for the objects, are displayed in the
vitrines in a caricature-like state. The airbag, usually neatly
concealed and folded into a minute artefact, is strangely
dissociated from its name which describes a state it achieves
for only a fraction of a second and only once in its life.
During most of its existence an airbag is really an air-less
bag. Georges Bataille reminds us of the inherent problem with
taxonomia (11): “A dictionary begins when it no longer
gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless
is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term
that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring
that each thing have its form.“ (12)
The taxidermal approach used
by Kit gives the airbags a static, sculptural form. The exposed
and de-activated container has lost its mechanical purpose.
Its display is now reminiscent of de-commissioned military
hardware which is often found outside RSL clubs or in the
middle of country towns. They share a sense of ‘being
out of place’ with these objects/instruments, but at
the same time they serve to remind us about an earlier function,
when the apparatus could take or save lives.
Airbags too can kill and
injure. Claims as to actual numbers of people saved by airbag
systems are difficult to verify (13) whereas the numbers of
injured or dead airbag victims are easier to come by. (14)
If the question arises ‘are airbags safe?’ the
answer must clearly be ‘no, not absolutely’. But
then again what is? I suspect KIT are not so much interested
in the Ralph Nader terrain of automotive safety. Instead,
I propose the airbag is aesthetic and conceptual bait to draw
us into a discursive analysis of issues around the crash and
its broader socio-cultural implications. When Kit declare
a necroscopic (15) interest in the crash it seems clear to
me that this interest is not informed by the morbid curiosity
that typifies the bystander at a crash site; rather the social
and cultural dimensions of the crash have narratives that
significantly extend beyond where our culture has drawn its
line of interest in the matter.
We measure life and death issues routinely using statistics.
Statistically we have a similar risk of dying whether we had
visited the recently opened Melbourne Aquarium or had driven
an airbag-equipped vehicle. So, when a cooling system ends
up signifying the same potential to kill us as some lunatic
mass-murderer with a semi-automatic, we understandably perceive
this environment less and less as the architecture of some
technology augmented Shangri-La. This inflames our ability
to worry! We harbor angst about our security because of radiation,
pollution, new viruses, cancer and now airbags and fungal
spores. But clever marketing strategies have suggested a way
out for the individual: overcompensate domestic and personal
hygiene to the point of absurdity. So in the end we take control
(the little we have) and become fetishistic anti-bacterial
Rambos in our domestic space. We reach into the arsenal of
bug-killing aerosols at the slightest hint of bacterial or
insect presence and eliminate the bastards by the millions.
Feels good doesn’t it?
1. Ivan Carvalho, “Dr.Strangelet
or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the big bang”
in Wired , 8.05. 2000, pp 254-255.
2. Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton,
New Jersey - have said that, in theory, RHIC could trigger
the runaway formation of a poorly understood breed of subatomic
particle known as a strangelet, which “eats” all
matter it encounters, a chain reaction that would consume
everything everywhere. Fortunately, most experts aren’t
worried. MIT physicist Bob Jaffe says the chances of RHIC-induced
Armageddon are “exceedingly rare” bordering on
nil, but as he admits, “you never know.”
3. In 1941, the quiet existence of 31-year-old Louis Slotin
was shattered when the United States entered WWII. Winnipeg-born
Slotin, a brilliant nuclear scientist, was working at the
University of Chicago when he was asked to join a group of
scientists experimenting with nuclear fission. The team and
its work became known as the ‘Manhattan Project,’
and would soon build the world’s first atomic bomb.
Louis Slotin’s speciality was “tickling the dragon’s
tail,” bringing together two hemispheres of plutonium
and uranium as critically close as possible without starting
a chain reaction. Slotin’s life came to a tragic end
at the age of 35 following exposure to a lethal dose of radiation.
4. A monkey trap consists of a jar tied to a tree. The jar
contains a shiny trinket or a peanut. The jar’s opening
is large enough to allow the monkey to reach in and grab the
content but does not permit the monkey to retrieve its closed
fist. The monkey can save itself from capture simply by letting
go of its new possession.
5. A reproductive cell produced by plants (fungi, moss, ferns)
and some protozoa and bacteria. Bacteria also produce spores
as a defensive mechanism. Spores have thick walls and are
able to withstand varying temperatures, humidity and other
unfavorable conditions. High temperatures are required to
kill bacterial spores.
6. Penny Fannin (Science reporter), The new viral timebomb,
The Age, Melbourne, 3/06/99, pp 22.
7. Damien Broderick, The Last Mortal Generation, New Holland,
8. An early example is the following account: “The grub,
the larvae of a large moth commonly called the ‘night
butterfly’, is subject to attacks from a vegetable parasite,
or fungi, called Sphaeria Robertsii. The spores of the fungi,
germinating in the body of the grub, absorb or assimilate
the whole of the animal substance, the fungus growth being
an exact replica of the living caterpillar. The fungi, having
killed the grub, sends up a shoot or seed stem; its lower
portion retains its vitality and sends up another shoot the
following year. “
C. Fitton , New Zealand Scientific American, February 1899.
9. Eshel Ben-Jacob and Herbert Levine, ‘The Artistry
of Micro-organisms’, Scientific American, October 1998,
10. “...so dust might be allowed to settle for a period
of three months (Man Ray’s famous photo shows the ‘dust
breeding’ process) to be finally fixed with varnish.
This ‘breeding of colours’ takes us closest to
his ideal - the glass seen as a ‘greenhouse’ in
which transparent colours, as ephemeral as perfumes, will
emerge, flourish, ripen and decay like flowers and fruits.”
(And spores of fungi, W.H.)
Richard Hamilton, ‘The Large Glass’ in Marcel
Duchamp, Anne d’ Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (Eds),
Thames and Hudson, London, 1973.
11. The activity of classifying and naming things.
12. FORMLESS, Georges Bataille. In Documents # 2, May, 1929.
Paris. (Reprinted in Denis Holier, Against Architecture :
Writings of Georges Bataille. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
and London. 1992 (pp. 46 – 55).
13. According to American statistics an estimated 1 198 lives
were saved between 1987 and 1995 in the US because of airbags.
By 1996 an estimated 30 million vehicles had been sold with
airbags fitted. Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
US Department of Transportation, Washington DC
Third report to congress ‘Effectiveness of Occupant
Protection Systems and Their Use’ , December 1996. www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/airbags/208con2e.html
KIT remind us that some 150 people were killed by airbags
in the last 10 years. Statistically that’s in the range
of 1 in every 200 000 occupants of airbag equipped vehicles.
14. There are numerous websites.
15. Examination of bodies after death.