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Losing Ground: On holes and Other Absences

Workshop and Exhibition report

It has been just about over a month since our workshop and exhibition “Losing Ground: On holes and other absences”. The idea of the event was provoked by the sudden appearance that popularly characterizes the event of a sinkhole. A geological phenomenon that gains increasing media coverage and that captures popular imaginations across the world. To follow the sinkhole is to ask “what happens when the ground gives way?” What does it mean philosophically, metaphysically, politically and architecturally “to lose ground”? Holes are powerful, yet they are under-theorised, unthought, perhaps even non-existent; however, as soon as they arise or emerge as a provocation, a rupture or a question, holes appear to be everywhere. They pose an ultimate critique, we like to think.

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Courtesy of Sam Wallman

 

The event took place over two days in a small hole of our own making in the University of Warwick (UK). It consisted of a cross (non/ un)-disciplinary workshop and an exhibition with performances as well as academic lectures. As such, we tried to trouble the disciplinary boundaries of conversation between artistic and academic practices. Digging or excavation is a dirty business, as holes by their very nature ‘dis-place’, but that is the price we were willing and even keen to pay for our political ungrounding.

We organised four panels, one around sinkholes and orifices chaired by Harriet Hawkings (Royal Holloway), another one on visualising holes, more geared to the “here and now” of holes chaired by Angela Last (Warwick). A third panel focused on bodies and urban voids chaired by Sam Hind (Warwick), and a last one led by Ben Richardson (Warwick) on structural and networked short-circuits and ground faults. The discussions bridged around themes of spatiality, temporality and corporeality, and while punching many holes through the thick layers of conservative academic conventions, they crossed entire universes, perforating moons and planets, giving rise to new horizons.

We started the event with an introduction by one of us. Marijn Nieuwenhuis took us on a journey through different holes, inviting us to fall into them, see and travel through them.

You might wonder why organise an event on holes? Is organising and talking about something that is not there not counterintuitive? And what can possibly be interesting about things that perhaps do not even exist? Are holes even things? How to go about in assessing the ontological status of a hole? Indeed, what is a hole?

Karl Schoonover (Warwick), Natalie Koerner (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts), and Tarquin Sinan (Université Libre de Bruxelles) directed our attention to this last question and commenced their presentations from the vantage point of film, architecture and sculpture. Natalie’s contribution, framed around a Heideggerian-inspired mode of analysis, argued for a ground that is very much involved in the act and of dwelling, against a conception of the ground as stable, passive and nurturing. Natalie interrogated the sense of shock and awe of a sinkhole, a theme and experience which also appeared in Karl Schoonover’s presentation on contextualised sinkholes in films and gifs. Karl demonstrated how sinkholes appear as a portal to the unknown or to ‘unknowability,’ as our conventional parameters of time and space seem to come to a halt, are altered or maybe even disappear. Tarquin Sinan shifted our attention to holes in the body in Antony Gromley’s series. In an engaging presentation, Tarquin followed 20 years of Gromley’s evolving sculpting interventions, which constantly negotiate the ecological insides and outsides of the human body, questioning its solidity, destroying it, scattering it.

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The ‘holey’ body – not a reference to Deleuze’s espace troue – was also the subject of Aya Sabry’s (American University, Cairo) evocative and creative film On the W/hole: Foldings and Flux. Aya’s contribution was a creative narrative piece on the anthropology of holes in everyday life. It followed the maker as she walks, drives, navigates life and death in Egypt, through a bullet-hole that opens up a body yet does not kill; the presentation fundamentally toys with what a hole does in our everyday negotiation of life and death. Similarly focusing on Egypt, one of us (Aya Nassar)  presented on a building’s journey of demolition. It was also a personal account on the helpless spectatorship of the destruction of a symbolically and politically charged building. She sought to question the assumed sudden rhythm of the sinkhole, by also focusing on the slow and methodological process of ruination as hole-making. Holes are never silent. Japhy Wilson’s (Manchester University) presentation was also concerned with temporality, yet with a focus on utopian and revolutionary dreaming and awakening. By using gaps and thresholds (and through a reading of Kafka), Japhy asked us to join him in his narration of a revolutionary movement twice, highlighting that, perhaps, by pausing on the threshold of dream and awakening, we might be able to recover solidarity and revolutionary potentialities that are left traceless in a narrative that glides over gaps.

Stay with us, in our rabbit hole, just a little longer, as the workshop also saw three forms of holes, gaps, and absences that were interrogated for their creative and political potentialities. Dimitris Panayotopoulos-Tsiros (UCL) challenged the idea of an urban void (from an urban planning and architectural perspective) by looking at the Eleonas, an industrial area in western part of Athens. Dimitris showed how and why an urban void can only be understood in relational terms. A similar concern with the relationally of absence could be found in Maria Audi Kiskowski-Byrn’s (University of South Alabama) video presentation “The Deleted Tweet.” Maria fretted over the lost geographies of deleted tweets. Where does the deleted tweet go? Does it leave a hole, a trace?  While a deleted tweet may raise considerable anxieties, especially in our Trumpian age, Lucy Finchett-Maddock (University of Sussex) finds revolutionary potential and promise in a-legal spaces, that is the space outside/ inside of law. Her Agambian presentation provided a holey focus on property and squatter rights.

As we came to occupy space – lawfully or not – Chris Write (independent artist) invited us to accompany her on a journey in the holes of her own designed bubbles and crevices, as she herself prepared to inhabit a hole in an upcoming residency project of fellow artist Linda Duvall. Chris brought along her own manufactured holes to show, see, touch and feel and experience. To hold, feel, see (and not see!) a hole, hovering as a blown bubble in the room was her way to invite us to share in her attempt to make sense of a hole.

As the workshop’s presentations were digging deeper and deeper, Heide Fasnacht and Jenny Perlin (both New School) had segments of their artistic work installed to accompany those of the presenters. Heide’s showcased photographic imagery of her Suspect Terrain and Jenny video looped her One Hundred Sinkholes. On the second day, the two visiting artists gave two inspiring performance lectures based on these segments and their broader work on holes. Heide’s performance carried the provocative title “Everything I make is a sinkhole,” and was an invitation, not only to her creative practice but also to the possibility of thinking through materiality, temporality and emotional involvement with instability, destruction, and catastrophe. Jenny’s emotionally moving performance was a temporal and sensorial adventure into the cave where sleepers and dreamers meet and inhabit spaces of lightness and darkness, in joyful anticipation or dread of the (re)surface.

The two performances were most generously received and commented on by Teresa Stoppani (London South Bank) and Divya Tolia-Kelly (Durham University), who from architectural, geographic and postcolonial points of view offered their own rendition of how creative practices around sinkholes might tell us something about our ceaseless attempts to make sense of that which we fear, to find multiple and coexisting ways of knowing and to disturb our complacency towards geophysical and social worlds.

Eventually, therefore, the event ended on the same note with which we started, a thought experiment on how we can rethink the “ground” on which we base our knowledge and lay claims of truth. This all in an attempt to transform the ground’s imagined stability, solidity and fixity into a more open-ended question. Ungrounding requires suitable instruments and tools to dig beneath our feet. At least, that it, if we wish to recover a sinking earth that is alive, that composes and decomposes; an earth whose meaning is not determined but fluid, relational and, ultimately, political and ethical.

Recordings of the event can be found here.
(Aya Nassar & Marijn Nieuwenhuis, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Holes to Hide in and to Hide From

Holes are to be found everywhere around us, yet they might be most prominent at the instances when they appear. While we continuously make holes through our mundane activities, their coming into being has a traumatic character when it is associated with the destructive violence of war. Holes seem to be an inherent part of war, one that has been consciously and unconsciously taken up in both its practice and its representations, and one that continues to be taken into account when thinking about conflict today. While bullet holes are still around us and hide (or reveal) stories about everyday violence, bomb craters are perceived to be far away. Yet their physical reality is undeniable, as well as their effects on the lives of many.

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Projectile pendant made by a soldier out of the bullet that shot him in the leg at Gallipoli (Source: http://www.armymuseum.co.nz/whats-on/world-war-one-centenary/personal-treasures-wwi-trench-art/)

The image we have of World War I seems to be built around holes – we have our imagination captured by the fact that one of the largest conflicts in European history was fought in trenches. Soldiers spent weeks in ditches dug in the ground in order to protect themselves, having their lives structured by their hollowed-out shelters. It is difficult for many of us to imagine how it is to live in the ground, covered by mud and water rather than by sheltering and clean walls. The impact that living in such holes has on the senses has been recovered by Dr Santanu Das, of King’s College London, who notes how WWI soldiers became highly aware of their own bodies and their material surroundings, a truly physical experience.While some try to recreate that experience by digging their own trenches in order to explore ‘the myths and realities’ of trench warfare, others dedicate their attention to the way soldiers exteriorised their own sensitivities by creating art. While not always made in the trenches, what has now become known as ‘trench art’ is a further proof of the materiality of WWI life. Soldiers used everything that was available to them, from bullets to tin cans to match boxes, in order to create beauty out of the tools they had to use for destruction.

The war holes in the West are marks of the past today, grim and immense reminders of the destructive power we have spent so much creating. In some places, they have even started to foster life, rather than take it. Yet, in other parts of the world, new holes are created every day, and with them comes destruction which does not yet take creative or joyful forms. In the Middle East, bombing still carries out its destructive purpose, hurting people and their houses. Holes are thus the mark of conflicts, not yet memorialised but treated as any such mark would be when investigated violence: as proof.While World War I is remembered as the war of trenches, World War II and the Cold War brought forward different kinds of holes. More than with trenches, holes became protective shelters. From the fascination with the Führerbunker in which Hitler died to the frenzied bunker-building meant to shelter us against nuclear attacks, the underground became the place towards which people turned when thinking about a war which was focused more on looming threats from the sky, rather than on face-to-face combat. After the times of nuclear threat have passed in a now unbombed West, bunkers became spaces of creation, shelters of art which attract curious tourists rather than scared civilians.

A team of architects and scholars led by Eyal Weizman investigates them in a project called ‘Forensic Architecture’, exploring holes in order to uncover the material aspects of the conflict. Scholars like Weizman look at the way holes are present in people’s everyday lives – how Palestinian houses are rendered uninhabitable by the holes made in them. Bombs makes houses unfit for dwelling, bringing war into the private space of the home. As such holes become recognised and analysed marks of aggression, bombing technologies are made, conversely, to leave fewer and fewer traces. Helen Kazane writes in The Funambulist about the use of aerial bombings in Lebanon and Syria during World War II. She shows how such actions were used by the allied forces as techniques of control in the Middle East, and then ignored by post-war trials and analysis. As the connection between bombing and control becomes tighter, the one between bombs, holes, and impact starts to blur. The US recently dropped the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ (MOAB) in Eastern Afghanistan, a bombing that, however, is not the kind we are used to. ‘MOAB’ actually stands for Massive Ordnance Air Blast Weapon, as the projectile explodes mid-air rather than on impact with the ground. Thus, the crater it produced is much smaller than one would expect, with only 80 feet in diameter. Holes are the marks that reveal the impact even long time after it has taken place, yet MOAB did not leave a massive one. Rather, it was deployed against holes, as the ISIS members it targeted used tunnels as their shelters. New military technology, therefore, challenges our understanding of impact and violence. US strikes in the Middle East already happen from a distance, through drones, and now bombs themselves leave space between their explosion and their targets, as destruction becomes less material than we usually imagine.

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The MOAB impact area (Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39705128)

From the physical reality of trenches, holes have evolved throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to being almost left out of conflicts. They, however, are still there, and the consequences of war are as catastrophic as ever. Thus, at a time when the West distances itself from the holes it produces in other parts of the world, it is important to keep in mind that such destruction still is part of the daily lives of many people. The Vietnamese poet Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ shows us this in her poem ‘Bomb Crater Sky’ [Khoang Troi Ho Bom]. Set in the Vietnam War, the poem reminds us that bomb craters are never empty, but, for the people whose lives they affect, they are filled with everything and everyone they destroy:

They say that you, a road builder

Had such love for our country

You rushed out and waved your torch

To call the bombs down on yourself

And save the road for the troops




As my unit passed on that worn road

The bomb crater reminded us of your story

Your grave is radiant with bright-colored stones

Piled high with love for you, a young girl




As I looked in the bomb crater where you died

The rain water became a patch of sky

Our country is kind

Water from the sky washes pain away




Now you lie down deep in the earth

As the sky lay down in that earthen crater

At night your soul sheds light

Like the dazzling stars

Did your soft white skin

Become a bank of white clouds?




By day I pass under a sun-flooded sky

And it is your sky

And that anxious, wakeful disc

Is it the sun, or is it your heart

Lighting my way

As I walk down the long road?




The name of the road is your name

Your death is a young girl’s patch of blue sky

My soul is lit by your life




And my friends, who never saw you

Each has a different image of your face

(Andrei Belibou, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Traces of Impact

George Cuvier wrote in 1826 that a traveller through regions of abundant vegetation, prospering population, and dense cities ‘is not inclined to believe […] that the surface of the globe has been overthrown by revolutions and catastrophes’. However, Cuvier’s own approach to studying the earth allowed him to comprehend ‘the extent and grandeur of those events of ages past’. Cuvier was a proponent of catastrophism, an early geological belief that earth has been and still is shaped by sudden, catastrophic events. Although later in the century this theory was mostly replaced by the uniformitarianism proposed by George Lyell (who argues that the earth evolved gradually according to constant laws), catastrophism never really died out. And it is easy to see why: there are deep marks in the earth, big holes which spell catastrophe. The craters that we see are signs of destruction, from outer-space objects, or, more recently, from bombs. Catastrophism may not be the only way the surface of the earth changes, but huge-scale geological catastrophes are visible in huge holes we can see and walk into.

The most famous such catastrophe on a geological scale is the ‘impact event’ that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The impact left not only a hole in the biosphere of the earth, but an immense crater in its surface. The so-called Chicxulub crater, named after the Mexican town near its centre, is now under other geological strata, but its immensity can still be seen on gravitational maps of the Yucatan Peninsula. This is not the biggest hole caused by an impact on the earth. The Vredefort crater in South Africa is estimated to have initially been as large as 300 kilometres in diameter. This is only an estimate because craters are not static, but dynamic and always changing. A crater is not only a big hole in the earth, but a perpetually happening geological event. Due to their size, the craters’ walls move and collapse, creating peaks in their centre and multiple rings. They vary thus from smooth, bowl-shaped holes to intricate terraced places.

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Vredefort Crater, Free State, South Africa

What holes always do is provide space, a space that humans are also always quick and eager to fill. The Kaali crater in Estonia, for instance, was sacred in ancient and medieval times, its impact being visible in Finnish mythology. From spiritual connections, and through the disenchantment of nature, we get, however, to private ownership. The redundantly named Meteor Crater in Arizona is also known as Barringer Crater, after Daniel Barringer, the first to propose its impact origin. It shares its name with that of the Barringer Crater Company, through which the geologist’s family now owns the crater and collects visiting fees. The artist Hanna Mattes, however, has chosen to engage with meteor craters more creatively. Drawing on the idea that objects from outer space might carry life, she brings together photographs of craters with hand-edited ones of outer-space minerals from natural history museums. Through her art she explores the dual aspect of the meteorites’ interactions with the earth: destruction and beautiful creation.

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Steine 5 by Hanna Mattes (source: http://www.hannamattes.com/projects/steine/#anchor-4)

Beautiful as well is the crater-ridden surface of the moon. With no atmosphere to protect it and little geological activity, lunar craters are myriad and mostly intact. The holes that mark the face of the moon are iconic of the way we think of it. In 2014, NASA organised a contest named ‘The Moon as Art’, in which voters decided which of the photographs taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter got to be the cover image of the project. Most images, including the five with the highest votes, were of craters or crater formations. Beyond just their beauty, however, lunar craters have many things to say about us. Bettina Forget, an artist from Montreal, noticed how, out of the 1,605 named craters on the moon, only 29 bear the names of women, such as those of astronauts Judith Resnik and Valentina Tereshkova, of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, or of the ancient mathematician Hypatia. More than 350, on the other hand, are named after men. The holes in the moon show a hole in our society – the lack of women in what Forget calls ‘the power structure’ of science. Her project is to highlight these ‘Women with Impact’ by producing drawings of the female craters on the moon. The École des Mines de Paris philosopher Anne-Françoise Schmid, on the other hand, uses craters on the moon to close a hole: that between science and art. She discusses a painting of Lodovico Cardi (Cigoli) (1559-1613) depicting the Madonna in a lunar crater to argue for an epistemology which unites them both.

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Cigoli’s Immaculate Conception, in the Paoline Chapel, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (source http://letteraturaartistica.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/galileo-and-ludovico-cigoli-moon-and.html)

Craters, like any other holes, can be filled. Some nineteenth-century geologists would have filled them with stories about how the world changes, yet they can host anything, from towns to art to statements about society. Be it on the earth or on the moon, craters are scars, and, as all scars, every crater tells a story.

(Andrei Belibou, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Making and Unmaking Space

We live space in our everyday life, yet we are constantly creating it ourselves. We tend not to see it and take our spatial existence for granted, moving through a seemingly empty dimension without questioning it. The two artists whose work will create this Saturday’s exhibition have challenged our received experience and ideas of space, unmaking it and making it through their work. They show us that space is full, complex, and never stable. Heide Fasnacht’s work on catastrophe and instability captures and creates turning point and disequilibria, showing how the dynamism of space can crash or take us by surprise. Jenny Perlin makes her own space in films, commenting within it on the one we make around us, on the way we order the world.

Heide’s ongoing project is ‘Boomtown’, a visual chronicle of the explosion of architecture oriented towards consumption. It captures the unreality of casino towns, with the most famous example of Las Vegas’s bricolage of buildings united in an ‘asynchronic, ahistoric collision’. Such ‘enticing’ architecture is itself a consuming one: it engulfs space and it engulfs the past in its constant expansion, as Heide’s work focuses on the demolitions that make possible the constant evolution of such places. This creative destruction is made to consume people, carefully designed to be a vortex that attracts visitors. It creates a split within its (temporary) inhabitants to echo the one between Las Vegas and its surrounding desert. Heide herself cannot help loving this ‘populist’ architecture, without ceasing to hate it.

A love-hate relationship to capitalism was explored by Jenny in her 2004 film ‘Possible Models’. She tells the story of a Somali immigrant from Columbus Ohio who had been arrested for an alleged intention to blow up the mall he was working in. This, however, is the frame for telling a bigger story, that of huge consumer malls, from the failed utopia of Victor Gruen’s first design in 1956, to the immense ‘hyper-capitalist’ project The Freedom Ship. Nurading Abdi, the Columbus Somali immigrant, was indeed enticed by these spaces of freedom and plenty – he ‘loved’ living in the US and ‘hated terrorists’. Yet these spaces of freedom turned, for Abdi, in 6 months of detention without a charge against him, a conviction to 10 years in prison in 2007, and a deportation to Somalia upon completion.

Abdi’s conviction was a way of restoring order to the capitalist space against outsiders and threats. A more recent film by Jenny tells the story of bringing order upon the whole world. In ‘The Measures’ (2014) she tells, together with Jacqueline Goss, the story of Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, two French astronomers, and their quest of finding a unique unit of measurement. From 1791, they started an endeavour to find out the distance from the Equator to the North Pole and divide it by 10 million in order to find a universal measurement – the metre. In times of violence and political upheaval, they try to unite the world under one scientific system, ‘taken from the world’s constancy and based on the number 10’. Jenny’s latest project, however, is one which undermines this constancy. Drawing on literature, history, and science, ‘Long Sleepers’ explores the caves of one of Jules Verne’s novels in parallel with the Ohio Caverns. Jenny shows how these underground spaces are not constant at all, but play with our perception of light, distance, and time.

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Heide Fasnacht’s ‘Munich Collecting Point’, mixed media, from LOOT

 Disorder, on the other hand, is Heide’s subject in her 2012 project ‘LOOT’. Works of art and cultural creations are kept in highly regulated settings, uncommon spaces with specific rules and specific purposes. During World War II, however, art turned into loot – the almost sacred spaces of museums and collections was broken. Heide explores this ‘landscape of cultural destruction’ by confronting the viewers of her work with pictures of destruction and of art in situations that make us uncomfortable – thrown, stolen, bundled in boxes. Heide’s work captures disruptions in both space and time, by challenging the orderly peace of the museum we are used to. Her art, as well as Jenny’s, makes us aware of the space in which we live. They show us how it is constructed, ordered, and destroyed, and how it acts upon us, turning into an open invitation to make and unmake our own space.

(Andrei Belibou, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Black Holes (III): Picturing without light

Every black hole has an event horizon, a point at which its escape velocity is equal with that of light, therefore beyond which light cannot escape. Therefore, as far as our knowledge of black holes is concerned, we are, quite literally, in the dark. Light and knowledge are closely linked in Western thought, as we call the process and the period through which we began our modern quest for comprehension of the world the ‘Enlightenment’. Yet the way of (again, quite literally) looking at the world that started then is challenged within theoretical physics, and through the efforts of scientists to understand objects that we cannot see, such as black holes. Black holes lend themselves to speculation, rather than to factual knowledge and inference, and the knowledge created about them can come from more than one direction.

This, of course, does not stop scientists from trying, as discussed in the TED talk by Katie Bouman. Recently, telescopes all over the world have been put together to form one immense radio dish – the ‘Event Horizon Telescope’ – which gathered 1,024 hard drives worth of data by observing two supermassive black holes throughout ten days. Astronomers hope to combine this data into the first image we could have of a black hole – or, at least, of what can be seen of it. Before this immense effort, however, a French astrophysicist and poet, without the possibility of looking at one, offered an accurate image of a black hole in 1979, using a punch-card computer and ink on paper. The appropriately named Jean-Pierre Luminet worked out a way of visualising the right way light should hit a black hole so that the paths it takes can provide an image. Luminet envisioned the way ‘accretion disks’ (matter ‘swirling into the black hole’), which emit light and radiation because of their high temperatures, illuminate a black hole. Taking into account the light, the curvature of spacetime, and the speed of the rotating holes, Luminet produced an image of what the accretion disks allow observers to see, the best we can get to what a black hole ‘looks’ like.

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Jean-Pierre Luminet’s visualisation of a black hole; source: https://www.engadget.com/2017/04/19/black-hole-image-jean-pierre-luminet/

With more advanced technology, one of the most accurate images of a black hole which reached the general public was brought by the participation of the famed physicist Kip Thorne in the making of the 2014 film Interstellar. In other creations, however, artists have allowed themselves more freedom in imagining black holes and how these immense spatial phenomena can be brought in front of us. The Einstein Collective, for instance, at the Montana State University, created two short films to be projected in rooms into which visitors of their exhibition, The Black (W)hole, enter. Formed by both scientists and artists, the collective wanted to provide an immersive sensorial experience of being in a black hole, celebrating the wonders of space and the achievements of astrophysics alike. A similarly immersive fusing of science and art came out of the Australian artist Lily Hibberd’s collaboration with the group Extreme Light, creating Data Horizons. The installation contains an ‘analogue’ black hole, created by using gas and graphite to control light, slowing it down in a spiralling movement to less than the speed of sound.

Other artists have taken on trying to depict black holes using the matter available around us. Shea Hembrey, an artist from Frenchtown, NJ, in an exhibition in which he tries to uncover the invisibilities of the universe, has created a black hole using wheat straw. Rather than trying to capture what is ‘out there’, Stockholm artist Orestes Grediaga has turned within to use the black holes’ unknown to picture the pain within himself. By putting black resin on paper, he materialised both his own feelings, and the cosmic events that scientists are still to pin down. The New York artist Cair Crafword has resorted to drawing black holes in order to pin nothingness down, picturing the relation that the thought has with the unthought. Swiss artist Fabian Oefner has created colourful black holes, reflecting on the process of painting itself. He applied different paints to a metallic rod attached to a drill, photographing their swirling play of colours which appears when the drill is started.

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Fabian Oefner’s Black Holes; source: http://fabianoefner.com/?portfolio=black-hole-2.

It is difficult to know what black holes are, especially what they are holes in. Ultimately, they are holes in our knowledge and imagination. Without light, we cannot see them, but we have not shied away from filling them with our own meaning. The spaces they make allowed people like Luminet to solve scientific puzzles, but also provided artists the means to explore our relation to the cosmos and our relation to ourselves. They have been used as mechanisms of understanding the way we relate to nothingness and to the complex systems of information we are part of. Ultimately, what holes-that-are-not-quite-holes in the distant space seem to do for us is release our imagination.

Andrei Belibou (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Black Holes (II): Speculating across borders

The science we are used to in our everyday life is observational, based on inferences made by sensory experiences enhanced by technological tools. Black holes, however, cannot be seen: scientists have observed their effects on neighbouring bodies, yet they are, by definition, invisible. They are part of a different, more speculative science, one that allows astronomers to imagine what black holes may be and what may be ‘in’ them. General relativity tells us that ‘falling’ into a black hole would lead an object to a singularity, a point of infinitely strong gravity which is simply the end. General relativity cannot conceptualise what is beyond, in, or at the singularity. This is where ‘physics just stops’, although quantum physicists are trying to open up black holes by allowing a reality to exist beyond this end-point. Speculations about the limits of reality are poetic, albeit also somewhat unsettling: physicists such as Nikodem Popławski of the University of New Haven have proposed that every black hole may contain a universe and that, therefore, our own existence may be similarly contained within one.

Black holes have stimulated fantasies of space travel in science fiction, across the universe and across universes alike. Although a matter of films, this is not without scientific foundation. The reality of black holes that we have now is created within mathematics, a ‘language’ that, restrictive as it may seem to many, allows for imaginative speculation. ‘The equations of general relativity […] are symmetric in time’; therefore, it is mathematically possible for reversed black holes to exist – white holes, regions within which nothing can fall. A black hole and a white hole can be united by an Einstein-Rosen bridge, or what we came to call a wormhole, creating a hole through spacetime. Whether they are bridges or tunnels, wormholes have captured our imagination as uniting distant places, or even different universes.

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A scientific interpretation of a wormhole connecting Tübingen University with Boulogne sur Mer in the north of France.
Credit: Corvin Zahn, Institute of Physics, Universität Hildesheim, Space Time Travel (Spacetime Travel).

There is no observation of black holes yet possible, only (rigorous and mathematical) speculation. Science cannot obtain direct knowledge about black holes, a situation that has attracted the attention of philosopher Graham Harman. Harman’s ‘Object Oriented Ontology’ has the purpose of saving objects from what he identifies as European philosophy’s assault on them, either undermining objects by trying to always reach something ‘deeper’, or reducing objects only to their qualities. Harman aims to do this, however, without claiming knowledge or access to the thing-in-itself. He uses Heideggerian vocabulary to claim that objects are ‘withdrawn’ from us and from each other. He is part, therefore, of a trend of ‘Speculative Realism’, and has drawn a parallel between his speculation on objects and scientific speculation on black holes. In his book Prince of Networks (pp. 184-5), Harman writes that, as black holes are not only their visible effects on the surrounding matter, so are objects something beyond just their ‘sensuous qualities’. The analogy works further: as black holes exert an immense fascination on both scientists and laymen, so should philosophers not shy away from studying objects just because they are not directly accessible to us. We are fascinated with black holes, but we find (or do not find) similar mysteries all around us: objects. They deserve, Harman argues, as much attention and enthusiasm as black holes.

Harman’s purpose in discussing black holes is also a more general one: he tries to show that science is not completely different from arts. Black holes, as a subject of scientific enquiry, do not lend themselves to direct knowledge, but to oblique cognition, as that which can be obtained through non-scientific explorations of objects. Harman pushes philosophers to begin (again) to speculate about the world. He argues that, if scientists legitimately speculate about things such as black holes, philosophers can do so as well. If science can create tentative knowledge about objects that we cannot access, then arts and philosophy can reclaim their own speculative understanding of what has come to be seen the domain of scientists: the Great Outdoors. Black holes straddle the line of disciplines and break the boundaries between science and arts, and between different (maybe even opposing) epistemologies. They may not be holes as those we encounter in everyday objects, but black holes can open up immense spaces within our cognition.

Andrei Belibou (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Black Holes (I): The other way around

It is difficult to put one’s finger on what a hole is. Roberto Casati and Achille C. Varzi propose in their book Holes and Other Superficialities that our easiest way out is to argue that, by holes, we actually mean ‘holed objects’, the material that the holes are in (p. 2). ‘Indeed, the fact that holes are not made of anything seems to be a major hindrance to giving adequate identity to holes’, they write (ibid.), a challenge that they venture to overcome.

However, black holes are not in anything; on the contrary they are surrounded by void sprinkled with matter. Even more, they themselves are made of something, and not just anything, but highly condensed matter – condensed enough that a black hole of the mass of the earth would only have 18 mm in diameter. But most black holes are formed by collapsing stars, retaining their masses, which is, on average, ten times more than that of the sun. Black holes are, therefore, the other way around: rather than lacks within an object, they are immense amounts of matter amongst nothing.

As Casati and Varzi’s book shows, thinking holes is thinking reality itself, questioning the relation between something and nothing which we usually take for granted. Black holes take this one step further, pushing us to challenge our own words and, quite literally, our own place in the universe. They are, in one respect, similar to the holes around us: we associate holes with falling, and maybe not being able to get out, just as black holes are famous for having such a powerful gravitational pull that nothing, not even light, can escape it. Their immense mass means that the speed needed to escape a black hole’s gravity (the ‘escape velocity’) is higher than the speed of light. Since no light can come back to us, we cannot see black holes, yet what we do observe, the swirls matter forms when ‘falling’ into them, does not look much like the holes we are used to. Thinking beyond the immediately visible changes that. Within general relativity, gravity is a curvature of spacetime: imagining spacetime as a flexible surface, an object with mass creates a dent in that surface, and nearby objects fall within that dent. With immense concentrated mass, black holes create steep, deep dents from which nothing can escape – a funnelling which physicist John Wheeler had in mind when coining the name.

Supermassive black hole at the heart of NGC 5548
Supermassive black hole in galaxy NGC 5548: Source: (https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic1413a/Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA. Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin.

Black holes, therefore, are not holes in substance – they are holes in spacetime itself. In order to understand our own (very commonly used) name for them, we need to stop thinking about what we see and try to envision something different. We use the same word for a pothole in front of our house, and for an immense, unobservable cosmic event millions of light-years away. Different as they may seem, they satisfy, in the end, Casati and Varzi’s promulgation that ‘To be a hole is to be a hollow, a tunnel, or a cavity’ (p. 6). One is a hollow in asphalt, the other in spacetime itself. A connection between this local, immediate lack within our perceivable reality, and something much bigger than us and our senses happens through only one word.  Wildly different levels of existence are united by the way holes work within our imagination, by the connection we make between this elusive concept and the world.

Andrei Belibou (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Holes and (dis)appearances- DISAPPEAR HERE

We are happy to host Leanne Bridgewater and Emilia Moniszko’s exciting poetry film in our upcoming workshop. This poetry film, entitled Alice in Covland,  is part of a project we love- Disappear Here.

Disappear Here is an art/poetry project dedicated to Coventry’s ring road. The project brings together 9 writers and 9 filmmakers to work collaboratively on producing 27 poetry films inspired by the city’s ring road. The ensemble witnessed its premiere last March.

The name Disappear Here

is partly a reference to the old [British] saying ‘Sent to Coventry’ – meaning, of course, to behave as if a colleague or neighbour were not there. But it also speaks of the double-life of the the road itself. For travellers by car, it is a place of onward movement, but also of anonymity. Pedestrians, meanwhile, have no choice but to negotiate the subways and dead-zones created by the road (Disappear Here).

(read full  interview with Adam Steiner, the manager of the project).

Source: English Heritage Archives

 

The ring road, built between 1962 and 1974, was one of several ambitions for a future city made possible by the urban catastrophe of the Blitz in WWII. Coventry is one of the few cities that went through with its post-war urban plans in the famous Donald Gibson’s post-war plan (for more on Coventry’s urban development, see also Jeremy Gould and Caroline Gould’s The making of a modern city 1939-73).

IMG_4482.JPG
Source: Adam Steiner (2016), originally from Disappear Here

 

The ring road (A4053) runs a mere 2.25 miles around the centre of Coventry and inspires numerous love/hate relationships. Unlike many other city-centre ringroads it is one of the most free-flowing traffic systems, with only one major roundabout that impedes the transition of vehicles meaning cars can almost continue the full circle without having to stop (Disappear Here).

Interestingly, Coventry’s ring road forms a loop, where cars can complete a full circle without stopping. From above it can look like a hole.

Coventry's ring road in June 1970
Source: Coventry Telegraph

Links and sources:

Emilia Moniszko’s website: http://moniszko.com

Leanne Bridgewater’s website: http://www.leannebridgewater.co.uk

DISAPPEAR HERE website and Blog: http://www.disappear-here.org

Coventry: The making of a modern city 1939-73

Brutal inspiration: why poets are writing about Coventry’s ring road

Finding the Past in Holes

The past is not behind us – it is beneath us. Layers over layers of earth are resting over it. Buildings, relics, and human bodies are all hidden in the ground. And the only way to find them is to dig. Holes of different kinds are dug in order to explore, to travel, to build. Yet archaeologists dig them not to explore space, but to explore time, to find our past, and to build our knowledge. We find people in the holes we dig, be it through their own bodies or through the objects they used. Sometimes we recognise ourselves in them, we find ourselves in the holes. And sometimes we cannot understand what we unearth – objects uncovered which we cannot ascribe meaning to.

That holes can contain the past is most spectacularly obvious when they are dug for different purposes. We walk in cities without thinking that, besides sewers and subways, beneath us there are hundreds and thousands of years of humans who have lived there. When we take away the soil from under our feet, we can find things that have been lost or unthought of for centuries. Even if most digging in cities is done for construction or maintenance, we can sometimes find ancient runes when digging in order to install lightning conductors, ancient buildings when digging the foundations of new residential ones, or necropolises in the foundation pits of future five-stars hotels. Holes sometimes reveal so much that they overwhelm us, such as when the building of an apartment bloc in the centre of Philadelphia was stopped by the discovery of tens of 17th-century coffins.

Digging to build new things discovers old ones, so it is no wonder that immense projects such as metro tunnels are bound to reveal the past of their cities: a new underground line in London, for instance, triggered one of the biggest archaeological projects in the city. Rome’s vertical history is deeply ingrained in our imagination of the city, with metro lines unearthing antiquity in both reality and fiction. Only earlier this month the digging of a ventilation shaft for a new metro line uncovered Rome’s oldest known aqueduct, recreating, albeit less spectacularly, a scene from Fellini’s 1972 Roma in which awed workers drill into a gigantic ancient room with frescoes and statues. Fellini also shows, however, that holes can be destructive. The past is fragile and the layers of the city had sometimes better be kept separate, as it only took minutes before the air from the surface destroyed the images on the walls.

The takeaway is that holes are always more than what they look like. Archaeological investigations in cities are never easy to make, while digging for foundations and underground structures abounds. Yet one cannot have the latter without the former: digging the soil reveals what is hidden in it. Holes are not just lacks, they are opportunities, and sometimes we get lucky to find treasures of many kinds when what we walk on is forced to give way.

Andrei Belibou (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Stories in Bullet Holes

A Google search for ‘bullet holes’ returns a majority of results of stock photos, free images, and decals. They are weird apparitions, bullet holes in nothing: just black circles, with drawings of stripped paint around them, on monochrome (mostly white) backgrounds. Holes are lacks, dug or made in substances, yet these ‘bullet holes’ are disembodied, not in anything. They prove a weird fascination with bullet holes themselves: marks of violence, instantly recognisable, a symbol that we can all read with no context. And, as we dig a little through Google, a symbol that we can sell: a Copenhagen bar allows patrons to see the bullet holes from the execution of a WWII informant if they buy a shot (pun intended by them), while one of Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mao, with two bullet holes left by Dennis Hooper, sold for more than $300,000.

Why do bullet holes sell? They do because they have stories in them, stories which have a conflict, maybe even a tragedy by their very nature. We create such stories by buying decals or using stock photos, but some have learned to read them from the bullet holes which are already around us. Rather than exploring them in a forensic whodunit, New Yorkers Raymond Normandeau and Rita Frazier Normandeau let the bullet holes speak for themselves, by taking photos of all they encounter in Queens and then chronicling through them the violence of the housing projects. A similar preoccupation with isolating the violence and bringing it in exhibitions is that of British artist Piers Secunda. Among other works, he creates moulds of ancient works of art with bullet holes in Iraq and brings closer, in a tangible way, a story of violence which is only read about or seen in pictures in the West.

Aya Nassar
Beit Beirut, 2017. source: Aya Nassar

Others have used bullet holes to anchor memories. Gigi Cifali, based in London and Milan, chronicles through pictures of bullet holes and other details the violence of the Italian ‘years of lead’ (1969-1989), in which many bullets were shot, including the ones that killed the former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Others seek to preserve the bullet holes which became part of the architecture of areas marked by conflict. The Beit Beirut (House of Beirut) project aims at turning a house used as a sniper lair during the civil war into a museum of memories, with the building itself, strewn with bullet holes, as the main exhibit and reminder. In the same city there are efforts to preserve ‘The Egg’, a building of an unfinished complex, in the state the civil war left it in, with its bullet holes uncovered. Hong Kong artist Leung Chi Wo used photos of WWII bullet holes from the Legislative Council Building of the city as the illuminated background of different messages, filling the holes with his own (or others’) words in a project entitled ‘We must construct as well as destroy’.

Deborah Bay
Deborah Bay- The Big Bang- Five-seveN I source: http://deborahbay.com/gallery/the-big-bang/#lg=1&slide=1

While some read or bring forward the stories hidden in bullet holes, other write them themselves. Garrett Hansen uses bullets to create voids, while Deborah Bay remakes the Big Bang and creates new galaxies by shooting Plexiglas. Walton Creel, an American artist, draws animals with bullets (rather than killing them), in an attempt to ‘deweaponise’ the gun. Bullets are objects made to kill, leaving fatal holes behind them. Yet our fascination with them proves that even destruction hides a substance which we need to strive to see. Artists have read stories or written them in bullet holes, filling deadly gaps with meaning.

Andrei Belibou (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

Links mentioned: