letters from the north

The accident museum: 4 inquiries

As fortune is playing out, I am staying with the editor of AT (Anthropology Today), which is published by the Royal Anthropologist Institute! This I had known beforehand but I am already finding, after only 3 days of being here, is going to lead to many discoveries that were truly unplanned: connections to the Royal Anthropology society library and archives!
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In chapter 8 of Paul Virilio's Landscape of Events entitled 'The Accident Museum', he investigates how the error aspect within the scientific process has become background, hidden, when presented in a public context. "The innovation of the ship already entailed the innovation of the shipwreck' opens the essay in quite literal terms. The 'accident' within technological substance, whether in formal public appearance as 'completed' endeavors (science museum display) or in their early hypothesis stages of design (ex. early IPOD design that didn't make the 'modern sleek' design cut), never enter into our public knowledges (including language) systems until after an 'accident' has occurred. The essay, though written in 1986, is almost an eerie declaration of what is presently occurring, though it was occurring at that time, too, we are now even more indepted to this 'disappearance of failure': accepting one's failure, both individual and within U.S. mass (the government).

Stick with me here for a moment: The disappearance of failure, a full circle

When I set out to do more research into polar exploration, I was influenced by Paul Virilio's book The Aesthetics of Disappearance given to me by my partner Matt, who happened upon it because of the language in the title and used to describe it. At the time, I was researching John Franklin's disappearance in the arctic and so the words disappearance, loss, lost, vanish into thin air, gone, readily entered into our daily conversations, which drove him nuts after a while. My obsession carried over into the grant I wrote in order to come here: that these things (objects, concepts, words) that are 'lost' take on a new appearance, they claim new forms, whether it be in an object, a song, an oral story, a letter. A presence for an assumed absence. Humans want to memorialize in so many different ways! I, too, am after this tranferal of forms, these shape shifters. Why are memorials built?

Chapter 8 entitled 'The Accident Museum': Virilio uses the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, which coincidentally, I have used in order to describe the Franklin expedition in 1845: Both were the most technologically advanced exploratory missions of their time. And both ended tragically for some of the same reasons! A failure to accept failure within any construction. Virilio states that the fact that the shuttle even got off the ground was the real error, not that it exploded in flight. This we know because of Feyman's simple test done on live t.v. (thanks Richard!) (W.W.R.F.D? one should ask themselves daily.) Franklin's expedition failed for various reasons but the overarching theme is the ego: Both these missions involved a volumous mass of ego influenced by a first world nation concept that failure does not exist in the public realm. (Nor can it on a personal level, i.e. if you don't know how to use your ITUNES, then you 'fail' at life.-see TED lectures for more about this and other great topics- www.TED.com).
Franklin, too, failed before he even left down the Thames. John Barrow, who was head of the Admiralty, spent every waking minute ensuring that the mission would not fail: he personally hand wrote the sailing directions for Captain Franklin. Yet he failed by refusing to 'expose the unusual and yet inevitable' (Virilio 56) concept of failure, of possible death in the arctic by (at least) one 'simple' gesture: he did not schedule a search & rescue party for Franklin and his crew should they not make it to the meeting party in the Berring Strait. An entire driving force within the scientific method, trial and error, the error of which repeatedly occurred and whose solutions were repeatedly ignored. The failure of human senses and perception! Do we know our limits of perception? I'm not sure. Did the British ignore the Inuit? Yes, I am sure.
First world countries have always had the egos to go along with technology innovation. I might believe that it has allowed us to create the innovation to begin with, perhaps? At the end of Virilio's essay, he claims that his 'disaster museum' is in actuality the TV screen, that is able to show a second by second destruction of something, en masse. In his case, it is the demolition of the Debussy building on Feb. 18, 1986, which was a public housing block in France. The construction of the building has come full circle (Could we say that the building was finally 'finished' through the destruction of it?) It is a 'return and come', 'mee-ay-co' (phonetically spelled, sorry) in Fanti language in Ghana. 'Go and come' linked with the expectation that this will occurr when a mother sends her daughter out to buy eggs from the corner market. It is a phrase one hears constantly in Accra. Architecture lies within our timeline of destruction: we create 'futuristic' buildings, yet in the 'now', only for them to be actually very present tense. As soon as we grow tired of their futuristic (idea? facade? representation?) and once baby architects grow older, we want to present our 'new' futuristic architecture (current green design, Ford only now realizing that it must evolve in order to save itself (again, ego), Reality TV show- The Tribe)
And so we finish the building by tearing it down, by vacating our visual terrain of its face. To disappear what has now lost its previously constructed meaning. Or, to disappear that which threatens a current state of affairs.
Last May I was in Berlin for my first year graduate class trip. Fortunately I was there to see the slow disassembling of the Palace of the Republic building: in my opinion, a bleak, glass paneled cold monstrosity of a building that seamed tired, suppressive. There was nothing left to do but to tear it down, to complete a cycle? Though many protests occurred to keep the building, all for various and at times, polar opposite reasons. As a tourist/foreigner/artist/american in this troubled past and guilt ridden city, it seemed like a 'natural' gesture. To disappear a physical structure and place a plaque or memorial signifying what once lay in the landscape. We de/construct histories constantly, and it always depends on who is telling the new story. Berlin is wonderful in its memorial filled stomach for these very reasons of who-is-telling-the-story-now! Holocaust, pre & post, berlin wall, pre & post,..and on and on. The monolithic Soviet War memorial sits like a fat stone baby in a park in an old East Berlin section that was occupied by the Russians after WW2 (America 'owned' a section as well as France and England creating a four-square game.) The memorial is industrious looking and also quite awkward in its propaganda-esque visage. The bas relief 'tombs', the weeping mother, the young soldier men on bended knee! It is all there! For tourists and those returning to commemorate fathers/uncles/cousins and those grieving women, those troubled widows and women of the Russian state who, too, were courageous! When I visited, the city was busy replacing some of the stone walking paths. The geographical location of this memorial will allow it to remain there for a few more years, unlike the Palace, which is (was) sitting on 'Prime Realestate'. Berlin must move forward, it has a public (TV screen) image to uphold.

This brings me to the current Iraq War, which I cannot help but to write about. There is a shear comedy routine occurring in the middle east right now with American (and British) soldiers dressed in their complicated and technolgically advanced 'gear'. Despite its horrors, I give a sick and twisted laugh to this 'spectacle' just as I do with the Franklin Expedition: The things carried into 'foreign land' is always intrusive, awkward, and quite comical. As I said in yesterday's entry, Shackleton had his car and Franklin had his monkey. In the arctic, a comedy routine occurred between the British as the lead and supporting roles and the Inuit who were the keen observers and audience. The Inuit, who have lived in the arctic for centuries and know the terrain must have thought 'how ridiculous' of the British explorers who repeatedly got lost and never stopped to ask for directions. They only stopped to either steal or at times trade for food with the Inuit. It wasn't until Roald Amundson (of Norway) that dog sledge, skies, and especially fur were used by western explorers. The British flat out refused and tauted Amundson for being 'savage'. Technology is important, no doubt, and the Inuit had their technology that was far advanced than the west: To them the arctic was 'home'.
There is a photograph that I saw of soldiers talking with 'the locals': the soldiers are in their full 'gear' and the one has this thing on his head. I say 'thing' because I'm not sure it is a camera or night vision thing or light? But it looks completely ridiculous: he looks as if playing the Shakespearian part of the fool in court; Yet, this time, he is unaware of the concept behind his role. His technology has made him the alien.
The Iraq mess has been like the construction/tearing down of a building: it has come full circle that we get to watch on nightly TV. 'We' invaded and now we are failing and we did not anticipate the failure. 'We' as americans (as first world 'intelligent beings') were not supposed to 'fail' and so no backup plan was created. Chance, happenstance, issues of translation: these are always at stake. Many artists know this! Artists use failure all the time for their advantage! Most scientists know this, anthropologists know this, etc. Our current state in Iraq is currently complicated with the fact that the U.S. government is now changing its verbage and method of using language to describe what it is doing. Yet ego is still involved and so it still refuses to use the language of 'failure': of 'Empire'. To give voice to language, even aurally, gives it power. (Of course! Civil Rights movement, Women's Rights movement, the current scary Religious Right movement). Our memorials also turn aural: Elton John's song to Princess Diana, the ballads written about Franklin and his crew, the Titanic, etc. It is sometimes after, when memorials are reconstructed (the Vietname memorial designed by Maya Lyn), that a different visual of failure is presented. Can we claim our mistakes?
These things aid in meaning construction: Visuals aid in meaning construction: the aesthetics of our technology creates our sense of first world success. Our cars, despite gas prices, still look good. T.V., those cathode machines, are now flat flat flat.
So I finally come to my four inquiries which if you've read this far thank you. Its been a long roundabout investigation that is in its infancy preliminary stages. Memorials: histories of and how they have transitioned. The Arctic: what explorers brought with them and what was returned. War in Iraq and other present day turmoils: the Human ego. Role of technology: the continual link between testing and failure. All contribute to a physical manifestation of disppearance, of loss.

The Arctic offers a fantastic metaphor, for it holds so much of this, even today during International Polar Year (www.ipy.org). There are differences trying to be made because of mistakes made in the past. Exploration into this area by the west and south (the U.S.) during the 19th - early 20th century is a premonition of how we now can see our current state of affairs. The belief that good design will save us, that we are 'ahead' because of technology is on 'our side' must be approached with caution. I love technology, as I write on my Apple G4 maptop loaned to me by a university that fully supports technology and an art department that pushes for it to be used more. I love the Doors of Perception blog whose author, John Thakara, daily offers public information (and free if you use internet at the library, even non-tax payers, thank you!) about design (I.D, food oriented/agriculture, IT, anything!) in the world trying to make a difference.
I am ending today with this story, mainly because i don't want to make a nice neat 'package' for the reader. It isn't about a completedness, a whole. I'm a feminist, so it must always be about shifts, movement, revolutions that keep cycling, and one must always construct one's own windmill.

Inuit believe that when you kill an animal, one places a chunk of ice or snow in the animal's mouth so that it does not thirst on its way to the afterlife. It ensures that the animal will return, become reincarnated over and over for the hunter and his family to kill and eat again. The animal sacrifices itself and the hunter humbles himself in a gesture of thankfulness. A young hunter, after his very first kill, strips every last piece of flesh from the bones of a seal and returns them to the ocean/sea as an offering. Those bones find themselves in the watery darkness of the arctic, reunite to form the seal again and again for the young hunter. The family depends on this cycle for there are only a certain number of animals out there in the wild and one must always be aware that we are in communal agreement, nature and humans.