This blog post is distilling some information from the excellent article/podcast from 99% Invisible.
How can we communicate messages deep into the future? This was the question that, in 1990, a gathering of geologists, linguists, astrophysicists, architects, artists, and writers were tasked with answering (just as an aside . . . where are the damn anthropologists?!). The United States government wanted to know how to communicate with human beings 10,000 years in the future in order to let them know to stay away from radioactive nuclear waste—specifically from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.
Although the WIPP site will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, the federal government thought it to be impossible to communicate beyond 10,000 years. This isn't an outrageous sentiment. As a frame of reference, around 10,000 years ago, humans just began cultivating barley and wheat in northern Mesopotamia. I don't think humans today would be able to communicate with our ancient ancestors—who were first grasping the secrets of agriculture—and vice-versa.
At first, the panel thought about using the simplest of communicative devices: language. However, this was quickly shot down; from the perspective of those in the future, languages can change into incomprehensible gibberish (sorry linguists, I know it is more complicated than that) in a matter of 1,000 years.
The next suggestion was to use symbols; after all, there already exists a symbol that many in the world already associate with radioactive danger.
In fact, Carl Sagan—who was invited to this conference, but had to decline due to a scheduling conflict—suggested the use of skull and crossbones. However, the panel soon realized that symbols can change meanings in a matter of centuries, let alone millennia. In the Middle Ages, the skull and crossbones meant rebirth and resurrection and were often seen in artwork at the foot of the cross in scenes of the crucifixion. It wasn't until the 1700s—when the skull and crossbones were appropriated by pirates—that this symbol came to mean danger and death. Today, the skull and crossbones seem to be used more as an ironic, mundane symbol, garnering a chuckle—or more realistically, no reaction at all—when seen on a t-shirt sold in a Spencer's Gifts. This is in contrast to the urinating-on-yourself kind of fear that it may have elicited while on the high seas in the 1720s.
With simple symbols being discounted, one panelist, Jon Lomberg, suggested utilizing symbols in tandem with visual storytelling in order to warn humans in 10,000 years to stay away from WIPP. He drew the storyboard below.
However, the panel realized that if humans read the storyboards from the bottom frame to the top, it would look like—by approaching and interacting with radioactive waste—you would have diseases cured and would be happy! Or at the very least, maybe it would remove annoying t-shirt designs.
Landscape architect and artist Mike Brill suggested manipulating the landscape to warn people to stay away (his sketches are below). His suggestion was "a landscape of thorns"—needles jutting out of the ground in a threatening manner. However, who is to say this remarkably striking artificial landscape would not attract people simply due to it being an oddity (much like, as my wife suggested when we were talking about this, Stonehenge)?
Hopefully it is evident that talking in deep time is incredibly complex and difficult. But this conference was not the first to tackle this kind of problem.
In 1981, semiologists, science fiction writers, and philosophers were invited to the Human Interface Task Force to figure out how to prevent access to the deep geological nuclear repository of Yucca Mountain. This task force had far more innovative (read: wacky, but not in a bad way) ideas than the conference that took place 9 years later at WIPP. For example, science fiction author Stanisław Lem—author of Solaris—proposed a constellation of artificial satellites that would broadcast information about the nuclear waste sites for millennia. In tandem with these satellites, Lem also proposed creating information plants, which he called atomic flowers, that would only grow near a terminal storage site. The DNA of these atomic flowers would contain mathematical formulas that would warn humans of the dangers and contents of these storage sites. Lem eventually conceded that in 10,000 years, most humans would probably not know the significance of atomic flowers, and subsequently would not investigate the warning message encoded in its DNA.
However, the most interesting suggestion proposed by the Human Interface Task Force was put forward by philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri. Their suggestion was for the creation of "radiation cats" or "ray cats."
Bastide and Fabbri took a very anthropological outlook on how to talk in deep time. They suggested that cultural practices—myth, religion, folklore and belief systems—transmit through deep time more effectively than temporally static ideas like words, symbols and architecture. Their plan was two-fold: 1) genetically modify a species of cat that would change colors if they were exposed to radioactivity and release these cats into the wild and 2) begin creating cultural practices—writing songs, telling stories, creating art—that would contain the message: "If the ray cats begin to change color, get the hell outta dodge!" The idea was that the folklore about the ray cats would transmit through deep time no matter what language was spoken, what drawn symbols meant or what architectural styles were popular.
Nothing actually manifested from these conferences but the ideas are thought provoking. They are so interesting that in 2014, 99% Invisible created a podcast and article about these projects. They commissioned a song from musician Emperor X, who composed a folk song that—if Bastide and Fabbri's dreams became reality—may have been the start of this cultural transmission about ray cats. The song's titled "10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Settlement Near Nuclear Waste Repositories (Don't Change Color, Kitty)." You can listen to it below.
About a year ago, filmmaker Benjamin Huguet filmed a short documentary on this subject and managed to interview Paolo Fabbri as well. You can watch the documentary below.
If you're interested in getting some ray cat swag, the Bricobio makerspace in Montreal is creating some ray cat t-shirts designed by students at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. If you sign up for their mailing list, you can get 10% off of the teespring campaign that launches November 10, 2016. Check them out at: theraycatsolution.com and remember: "don't change color, kitty, keep your color, kitty, stay that pretty gray, don't charge color, kitty, keep your color, kitty, keep sickness away!"
For more information about deep time communications in relation to radioactive waste, check out Kelli Anderson's thesis.
Anderson, Kelli. 2005. “Designing for Deep Time: How Art History Is Used to Mark Nuclear Waste.” Pratt Institute.
I'm sitting in our hotel room on the second floor of an apartment building on Calle Gran Vía de Colón in Granada, a city in the Andalusia region of southern Spain. I have a bandana wrapped around my head à la David Foster Wallace and I'm listening as the putters of scooters at the streetlight below morph into screaming whines the moment the light turns green. It's noisy—almost overwhelmingly noisy—but the cool breeze floats through our open window and it feels good after a day of traveling through the scorching mid-May sun. The hot days are a not-so-subtle reminder that we are only 300 kilometers away from North Africa. I lean back in my chair, take a sip of Fanta limón, close my eyes, and let the traffic noise slowly wash over me until my mind vibrates at the same rate as a 50cc Vespa.
Granada seems like a lifetime ago. From my vantage point on the sixth floor of the Hotel Europark in Barcelona—awaiting the free champagne offered to us by the front desk attendant—I feel as though I am not even in the same country. I thrust open the door to our balcony and gaze over the six-lane intersection of Carrer d'Aragó and Carrer de Girona wondering where all the political graffiti went. Is Catalonia not known, historically, for its revolutionary fervor; and its city of Barcelona even more so? Why was I pleasantly assaulted with far-left propaganda as we closed in on Granada but now only see the familiarity of neoliberal, globalized capitalism as we enter the former seat of Revolutionary Catalonia?
George Orwell wrote of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in his Homage to Catalonia:
"It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal."
Interestingly, this description of Barcelona in the past was more accurate of modern Granada.
Amadeu Casellas Ramón was a political prisoner and militant anarchist who robbed several banks in order to finance labor and social struggles—as well as individuals who he deems as "in need"—throughout Spain. Because of this, the Spanish press nicknamed him "el Robin Hood español" (the Spanish Robin Hood). After being arrested and placed in prison, he staged multiple hunger strikes in a bid to gain freedom. He was released on March 9, 2010.
However, Barcelona—at least from this traveller's perspective—has become an occupied specter of its former revolutionary self. For example, this is a photo of the Hotel Colón in 1936, occupied by the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC)—in English, the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia.
Here is a photo of the same building that I took on May 25, 2016.
Yes. That's what it looks like. The images of Lenin and Stalin have been replaced with the symbol of our new oppressive and hegemonic overlord: Apple Inc. Revolutionary communism has been replaced with reactionary capitalism in the Plaça de Catalunya; the former PSUC headquarters has been converted into Barcelona's newest Apple store. Tourists and Catalans swipe and tap the latest iProduct, probably unaware that one of the most famous photos from the Spanish Civil War—a portrait of 17-year old revolutionary Marinà Ginesta—was taken on the roof above their heads in 1936.
I reflect on these modern truths as we walk through Las Ramblas, past the Hotel Continental, where George Orwell and countless other foreign leftists lived when they decided to travel to Spain to fight the Fascists. I reflect on these modern truths as we walk through Maremagnum, an enormous shopping mall off of the Playa Barceloneta. I reflect on these modern truths has I run my fingers gently across the shrapnel-scarred walls of the Plaça De Sant Felip Neri, where fascist Italian bombs fell, killing over 40 children. I reflect on all of these modern truths while walking through the narrow streets of Barcelona, smelling the sea air, and I can't help but feel...nostalgic.
The Late Latin word for nostalgia was taken from the Ancient Greek νοσταλγία (nostalgia). This word is the combination of two different Greek words: νόστος (nóstos, “a return home”) and ἄλγος (álgos, “pain, suffering”). It is from this original word combination that I title this post. Traveling through Spain felt like a return home—in the political sense—as I have never felt more electrified by the amount of socially-minded, far-left propaganda covering the walls of every governmental and financial institution. But I also feel pain as I watch revolutionary cities like Barcelona tumble into the neoliberal rabbit hole—looking, feeling, acting more and more like any other major capitalist city in the world.
Perhaps soon, the bellowing of revolutionary anthems will again wake the cities of Europe—and the rest of the world. Until then--¡A las Barricadas!
A colleague and I are organizing a panel for this year's American Anthropological Association meeting and we have put out a call for papers. If this sounds interesting, we would love to hear from you.
Call for Papers
Shattering Dimensionalities: Radical Imaginaries and Other-Worldly Diffusions
AAA 2016 —Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Topic: Current interdisciplinary research—either theoretical or in practice—about radical imaginaries, the reorganization of dimensionalities and the diffusion of other-worldly realities as acts of resistance to neoliberal globalization.
Organizers: A.M. Stapp, PhD candidate (Virginia Tech) & Taylor R. Genovese, MA Candidate (Northern Arizona University)
Conference: 115th American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting (November 16-20, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Capital—whether social, economic, political, cultural—against popular belief, is not a homogenizing and totalizing agent. The ever-searching, ever-reaching, ever-occupying hand of global capitalism is indeed a reality, but so too, is the ever-expanding, ever-reaching resistance to capital. The neoliberalization of space and the destruction of everything communal in its wake, although material realities, the neoliberalization process does not go unnoticed or implemented without contestation. When appearances are made, the manifestly destructive anticipatory frontier (Tsing 2005) of neoliberal globalization—although conjured up as beneficial and necessary for humankind—often crumbles by way of the rearticulation of its material dimensionalities through living, breathing embodiments and acts of resistance, either physically, mentally, and/or spiritually. Following the work of Holloway (2010), we explore the ways capital’s “crises” are rearticulated as an active project—a product of a utopian consciousness as well as material practices, which flourish as product of and with/in the imaginative realities and embodied experiences of individuals attempting to subvert neoliberal projects. Holloway (2010) thus encourages us to claim crises. “We are the crises of capital!” By refusing to submit to the demands of capital; refusing to think, act and imagine the world within the framework of neoliberalism, we, through the diffusion of different spatial and temporal relations, become capital’s crises. By refusing to let communal places be privatized and turned into no-spaces of consumerist and ecologically destructive dimensionalities, we become capital’s crises. Through the creation of autonomous spaces where alternatives to neoliberal global dimensionalities can safely flourish, we stop the (neo-)colonial occupation and privatization of space—physically, mentally, and spiritually—and thus challenge the very heart of capital (O’Hearn and Grubačić 2016). This panel will focus specifically on the plethora of ways in which the crises of capital are appropriated by alternative visions, voices, and corporeal realities. With a specific focus on space and the dialectic between capital and, us, it’s crises, we will collectively explore capital’s anticipatory and corporeal frontiers, both planetary and extra-planetary, but most importantly, the ways it is challenged, re-articulated—where alternative-dimensionalities unfold into the horizon.
Holloway, John. 2010. Crack Capitalism. NYC: Pluto Press.
Knopp, Larry and Michael Brown. 2003. “Queer Diffusions.” Society and Space. Vol. 21: 409-424
O’Hearn, Denis, and Andrej Grubačić. 2016. “Capitalism, Mutual Aid, and Material Life: Understanding Exilic Spaces.” Capital & Class 40 (1): 147–65.
Tsing, Anna. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. NJ: Princeton University Press.
We are interested in work examining the broad topics below through historical, social, political, cultural, ecological, material, performative, metaphysical, spiritual, and other transdisciplinary approaches:
To submit: Please email a 250 word abstract to both session organizers by April 10, 2016. Please include the title of the paper, author’s name, affiliation, and email. For conference requirements, please see “Requirements for Section Invited and Volunteered Submissions” here: http://www.aaanet.org/meetings/Call-For-Papers.cfm
A.M. Stapp: sapril1 [at] vt [dot] edu
Taylor R. Genovese: trgenovese [at] nau [dot] edu
Our time in Portland was as good as it gets. We packed in a few full days of all the top (in my opinion) Portland tourist destinations: Powell's City of Books, the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, the Chinese Garden, the Waterfront, and a few staple restaurants (Nong's Kao Man Gai, Salt & Straw, Voodoo Doughnuts, ¿Por Qué No? Taqueria). The best part, however, was being able to hang out with Amber, my brother, sister-in-law and my two nieces. I always get really bummed out when I have to leave my brother's family and it seems to get worse as I get older.
The next stop was Seattle. Originally, we were going to have three days but due to the threatening wildfires in Eastern Oregon shutting down I-84 briefly, we decided to leave after only two days. In Seattle, we went to the Space Needle and Pike Place Market so Amber could get the tourist experience. We also drove out to the NOAA Sound Garden, which was pretty lackluster due to it being a rare sunny, non-windy day.
So today, we made the 8 hour drive through Eastern Oregon to Boise, ID where we are spending one night before beginning our southward trek back home! Depending on how we feel tomorrow, we may drive the 15-16 hour drive in one go.
Today was a trip into Portland. We went into the world famous Portland Japanese Garden as well as the Rose Garden. I've been to both before, but I always try to visit when I'm in town. My brother has a membership to the Japanese Garden, so he was able to get us in for free as his guests. Amber and I bought two tea cups and a package of incense at the gift shop.
We then went to Powell's. Powell's City of Books is a mecca to me (as the son of two librarians and an academic). We spent close to three hours in the store and I probably could have stayed longer but Amber was getting a little antsy.
We drove back to Lake Oswego and ate at Dang's Thai Kitchen. Their vegetarian Pad Thai was delish! Tomorrow is our last full day here and I'm already feeling a little bummed about leaving. It's hard having family live so far away sometimes, especially after seeing how much my nieces have grown up since I saw them last.
research / travel / musings
This personal blog contains a variety of topics, both academic and not. For more writing, find me on Medium.