Playing with Fire

Art in the Age of the Anthropocene

Since the early 2000’s scientists have been stating that we are living in a new geological era, the age of the Anthropocene. While previous changes in geological eras took place due to drastic alterations in the earth’s systems such as the fall of a meteor, the clash of tectonic plates, or massive volcanic eruptions, in the era of the Anthropocene, humanity has become a geological force.

It all started with fire. When our ancestors managed to control fire for their benefit a process of differentiation between the human species and all other life forms disentangled. Fire permitted humankind to protect itself from danger, to hunt more with fewer efforts and to make food more easily digestible. Mainly, fire permitted humankind to control energy and to save our body’s own energy – making it available for other activities, enhancing our mental and physical capabilities.

Since those first encounters with fire humankind has developed innumerable forms of energy extraction from sources available on the planet, setting of chains of events that have affected deeply and dangerously the earth’s systems. Humankind has become a force of change on the environment – by placing fiber optic cables that change the migration patterns of birds, performing extremely deep perforations in India that change the force of gravity or creating pesticide combinations that make bees disappear.

Stemming from these ideas, the exhibition Playing With Fire is born from the need to investigate and assume the role of humanity in its own environment. Eyal Assulin builds a machine that is neither woodpecker nor an oil pump, but resembles both by trembling the environment of the gallery, and reminding us of the impact that these machines have on the floor we stand on; Hila Amram invites a colony of bees to enter into the domestic space, and puts the relationship between the disappearing bees and humanity on its head; Alonso + Craciun tell stories formed on the broadest “river” in the world where the relationship between people, the stream of water and animals is necessary to survive; Shachar Freddy Kislev explores the narratives of minerals from the perspective of the rock, and Dana Levy displays the findings of a recently discovered military fort absorbed by the depths of the swamps and mangroves in Florida more than a century ago.

This exhibition aims to present how in this period of transition, in which we need to reprogram our behavior, art can serve as a window to explore attitudes of the past, the consequences that they had and what is required from us in the present and the future, for there to be a future, rather than uncertainty. Today is the only remaining day to think about this because while we keep playing with fire, we need to prevent everything from blowing up.

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  • Artists

    Hila Amram, Alonso+Craciun, Eyal Assulin, Shachar Freddy Kislev, Dana Levy

  • Curator

    Roxana Fabius

  • Address

    55 Ben Zvi Road, Tel Aviv

  • Dates

    9.9.2014-18.10.2014

  • Opening Date

    9.9.2014

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From the Catalogue

Living from the Air: How Food and Fuels Arrive to the World

Prof Ron Milo

Transcription of a lecture “Living from the Air: How food and fuels arrive to the world” by Ron Milo, Associate Professor at the department of Plant Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science, on the new geological era we are living on: the Anthropocene.

I would like to ask you: in which Geological Period are we living in today? During the history of Earth, which has existed for 4.5 billion years, there have been many geological periods with many names; every million years a new name is given to the geological period usually according to the living creatures, which are found fossilized in rocks, of the period. In our current period the name is in the process of being changed. Every person who has had some interest in the matter knows the ‘Holocene Period’, which was the name given to the last geological period. However, in the last few years we understand that the time for a new geological period has arrived: ‘Anthropocene Period’, meaning ‘The Human Period’.

Every corner of The Earth is intensely influenced by human beings; this forces us to give a new name to the geological period we are living in, not only in terms of our personal understanding, but also because of how it affects the face of The Earth. Let’s take a look where is it visible: the graph we can see here starts in 1957 when exact measures started to be taken; Charles David Keeling took measurements of the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels found in the Atmosphere. The importance of his work was not comprehended when he started doing it. In 1957-58, which was declared the Geophysical year, different measurements of The Earth were taken. Keeling started to measure with precision the quantities of CO2 in the air; today his son, who is also a scientist, continues his father’s work. It could be seen in Keeling’s measurements for the first time that there is a direct connection between the passing of the years and the rise in CO2 found in the air. At the time when the measurements started being taken, the level of CO2 in the air was 300; today we have passed the 400.

It does not only happen next to power stations, which emit carbon, but in the composition of the Atmosphere around Earth. The quick pace in which we emit CO2 it’s due to the usage of fuels, petrol, carbon that we take from the earth. These minerals which were created in another geological period, two hundred million years ago, were given to us as a present from the Biosphere. The speed in which we are using these resources is such, that every year we are burning a present that took millions of years to become what it is.

The change can be seen in other examples as well. As the population of The Earth grows, seven billion today, and the needs rise, many cycles (nitrogen cycle, phosphate cycle) are changing drastically. It seems that we are even changing gravitation. An amazing thing can be seen: there are NASA satellites in space that measure and demonstrate that we are changing the gravitational force of The Earth. The place where this change is most visible is North India, in the regions of Punjab and Rajasthan. In those regions farmers use very intensively the aquifer of underground water. They are emptying the underground water reserve in such a pace that every few years they have to pump water from greater depths. The decrease in underground water levels changes the composition of the earth since the rocks become hollow, where water filled them. Thus, the satellites that measure the gravitational force show that the levels of water lost, changed the gravitational force on the face of The Earth. A similar effect can be seen in other places around the globe, but India’s case is the most noticeable.

We can ask: why do we need to use so much water? If we look at the ‘water footprint’, we can see that a lot of water is needed to provide food; for example, 1,000 liters of water are needed to get one kilogram of wheat. Think about one kilogram of flour. Now think about 1,000 liters of water. A huge amount of water is needed; therefore, water is pumped like in India.

Why is so much water needed to produce food? What is the main reason for which plants need to be watered so much? The main reason is that when CO2 enters the plant, water vapors escape. This is a crucial point to the human race, so it is worth understanding it better. Imagine a leaf, it is very thin: 200 millionths of a meter; there are places inside it in which supplied water flows and things leave the leaf. Nevertheless, the most interesting thing happens in small openings called pores. For the plant to be able to build itself, it needs to get CO2. The moment it opens the pore to get CO2 it releases water vapors. Because of that small opening that releases water when the plant get its CO2, so much water has to be invested for the watering.

For example, when looking at a Ficus leaf under a microscope the pores are visible. Sometimes, in some plants, with a little difficulty they are even visible to the naked eye. In every squared millimeter of the leaf there are between ten to a thousand pores that enable the plant to take from the air what it needs.

Why are these pores needed, what do we want from the air? We want the opportunity to use the raw material that will allow us to grow plants and accumulate energy. In simple words what we have here is nature’s creation of a battery. For the batteries that we invented, we have to dig the earth to find Lithium or Cadmium, which are rare metals. Nature found an elegant solution: it lives from the air. It found a way to make a battery from taking CO2 from the air. Nature’s battery is sugar; the same sugar we enjoy in our coffees and which is a link in the food chain.

How does it happen? Energy comes from the sun; the light flux is very impressive if you take into account the amount of energy that the sun generates. The topic of energy is very present in matters of discussion nowadays due to the depletion of fuel sources. If the energy that comes from the sun every hour of the day could be stored without loss, this energy would be enough for all of humankind’s use of energy for a whole year! The use of the sun’s energy is a great and complicated challenge, but the fact stated before makes it optimistic. Although Earth is poor in terms of energy in many ways, and every year humankind uses resources of coal that have been created during millions of years, there is still the option of using the sun as a source of energy. The main problem is that the path that will lead us to the use of the sun’s energy is long; moreover, we do not yet know how to use this energy in the most efficient way in terms of engineering and economy.
How do plants know the most efficient way to use the sun’s energy? A big amount of energy comes from the sun, and the plant needs to solve the problem of how to take advantage of this energy. Inside the cells of every leaf there is an organelle called Chloroplast. The Chloroplast is the one that receives the energy, and inside it the process of Photosynthesis takes place. The sun’s energy stimulates Electrons which make a chemical reaction that enables the storage of this type of energy. The plant stores this energy in a molecule called ATP which works as a coin of energy. However, these coins can be used for small purchases and for short periods of time only. To store energy for long periods of time, to build bigger things, the plant has to use what it is available to it constantly, and this is the air.
In air we can finds CO2, not in big quantities, less than a thousandth. The Carbon is the chemical basis for the plant to store energy for long periods, and to build with it many different things, so the plant must take the Carbon as little quantities as there are. There is a cycle which nature created, The Calvin Cycle, in which Carbon Dioxide enters, and through the use of energy it becomes sugar. With sugar as a point of departure, Nature knows how to make any kind of metabolic changes, like human’s metabolism. The metabolic change is the chemical process in which something, like Carbon from the air, changes into something else, like the body of a human being or a plant. Bacteria and plants are wizards in their capacity to do this, much more than humans. It is Nature’s great invention. In this subject is the greatest interaction between humankind and Planet Earth in many aspects. When looking at the usage of water, 70% of sweet water humankind uses is related to the watering of plants, which are connected to the Carbon taken from the Atmosphere, and it is used to produce sugar that turns into food and fuel. Although water is not the only resource humankind takes from The Earth. Let’s take a look at other resources from The Earth that humankind uses. These are not neighborhoods, shopping malls and highways, but in agriculture which is made of the process we have explained before. If we will be able to make this process more efficient, without cutting down any more forests, it will be of great help because the process itself is the reason why humankind uses the water and the soil. It affects the composition of the Atmosphere as well, which has a dramatic impact in terms of weather and global-warming. Humankind should be acquainted with this process and think about the way to make it more efficient. The real challenge is to get more out of the same resources humankind already has; finding the way to provide a good life standard for seven billiard people without using more of Nature’s resources since we have only one Planet Earth.

How do we approach the subject? In our research group at Weizmann Institute we are about fifteen researchers who come from different fields such as: physics, engineering, biology, biochemistry, chemistry, zoology, mathematics, and also from computer science. Each one of them is looking at the questions from different angles and perspectives. We try to approach the subject by mixing as many different knowledge domains as needed. The main question that we ask ourselves is: what is the most efficient way for us to take Carbon from the air? We want to learn from Nature how to take Carbon Dioxide from the air, and turn it into sugar. The first thing we had to ask ourselves was: how does Nature approach the process? We learned from watching molecular players that know how to work inside the cells and are able to turn one substance into another. When looking at bacteria or plants those same players are called ‘enzymes’. These enzymes know how to take a molecule and turn it into a different chemical substance; then another enzyme takes another type of substance to turn it into something else. Thanks to the fact that scientists have been studying biochemistry for more than a hundred years, we now know that there is a good infrastructure for the changes that might happen in each organism. The question that we are asking ourselves is: how can we take these enzymes that are found in large scales in so many organisms, and try to make a new connection between them that will help us cope with our challenge?

How big will the damage be if we do not change the way humankind uses Earth’s resources? This is the leading question. To answer this properly a group of experts with different perspectives is needed. The answer comprises knowledge of the cycles of The Earth, climate and more. It could be very bad even if we take into account that there were other periods in which the Carbon levels were as high as they are today or even higher. Although being on Earth was not always a pleasure, in many geological periods humankind would not have been able to live on Earth. Allegedly – Planet Earth will continue to revolve around the sun, and the bacteria in the lab will be fine, but us human beings will see a different world that the one we grew-up in and enjoy living in today. The question is: in which kind of world do we want to live in?

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Roxana Fabius

Playing with Fire

Text second full draft.

It all started with fire. When humans managed to control fire for their benefit, a process of differentiation between the human species and all other life forms began. Fire permitted humankind to protect itself from danger, to hunt with fewer efforts and to make food more easily digestible. Mainly, fire permitted humankind to control and conserve energy—making our body available for other activities and enhancing our mental and physical capabilities.

Since Neolithic times, humans and fire have gone a long way. We have learned to control it, use it, and abuse it. Fire remains a fundamental part of our energy production, and it has become a tool that we take for granted. In an age now dominated by fire, we lead lives that extract and consume energy at levels that are unknown for all living forms or the planet.

Since the early 2000’s scientists have been telling us that we are living in a new geological era. Previous changes in geological eras took place due to drastic alterations in the earth’s systems such as the fall of a meteor, the clash of tectonic plates, or massive volcanic eruptions. We are now in the era of the Anthropocene, an age when in which humanity has become a force of deep change on planet earth – by placing fiber optic cables that change the migration patterns of birds, performing extremely deep perforations in India that change the force of gravity or creating pesticide combinations that make bees disappear. There is no scientific consensus on when this new geological era began, but there is an agreement on the fact that since the late 1950’s the development of the Anthropocene has accelerated exponentially towards a rhythm that will soon be uncontrollable, a stage that is also known as the Great Acceleration.

Even taking into account the differences between places and populations, the amount of energy available for human consumption (energy affluence) is unprecedented. Energy affluence is defined as a rate derived from material or energy use per capita per year. Preliminary research shows that only in the twentieth century energy consumption per capita tripled in industrialized countries between 1900 and 1980, and in developing economies it doubled between 1900 and 2010.

The increased access to energy sources has enabled us to reduce mortality, provide reliable and fast long-distance transport for food, improve the output of agriculture and hasten information exchange. This increased efficiency has led to an accelerated rise in world population that again requires more energy to satisfy our needs. In this repetitive and entrapping cycle, we haven’t stopped to think about the consequences of our actions, and how they may impact the same sources that are providing us with that energy.

Art wasn’t a stranger to behavioral patterns that caused drastic changes in the environment. During the early years of the Great Acceleration of the Anthropocene, artistic movements such as Land Art developed with the declared intention to abandon the gallery in order to make nature, landscape and land itself the material with which art is made. Manipulations of nature were carried out with the clear idea that the whole earth is coextensive with the museum or gallery, and that there is no reason not to transform it. The works were developed in order to create a new environment that absorbs art as an integral part of the landscape. But the same artistic movement that aimed to substitute the gallery for nature, and stop the capitalist circle around the art world, in many cases intervened in the environment with such an aggressive strength that had a direct reminiscence of mineral mining. Thus, untouched landscapes became afflicted with human marks, and the art that initially sought to spe­­ak out against dangerous manipulations of nature, such as nuclear bomb trials in the desert of Nevada, became another example of human activity as a geological and environmental force.

While the earth’s systems were in balance, the behavioral patterns and beliefs that make us think that humans and nature are two separate things were manageable, but it is evident that we have tipped the scale and this relationship is in need of a serious reformulation. Our bond with our habitat should start by accepting our part in this chain rather than seeing ourselves as outsiders. Then we might start acting differently about it.

Since the early days of the Great Acceleration thinkers and critics from various fields such as philosophy, psychology and geography understood that a change in the relationship between humanity and the earth was in order. The new system should take into consideration both human and non-human agents, comprising also human actions and their effects in the environment. One of the most prominent voices on behalf of the need for change and development of a relationships that understands the place of humanity on Earth is French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour.

Latour states in his writings that it is imperative to free ourselves from the idea of nature as an external reality to us, and proposes to adopt a view in which all beings and objects (life forms and non-living) have equal status. He takes into account the ideological function of nature and suggests that its factuality legitimizes scientific discourse as an outsider to politics, making it unquestionable, and referring to our natural environment from an exclusively anthropocentric perspective. Challenging these notions is the first step in the progressive composition of one common world; a world where we can “all” live together. And this responsibility according to Latour lays on everyone from politicians to bricklayers.

There is certain difficulty in absorbing these ideas, where bacteria and human have the same weight, but they are slowly penetrating our consciousness. These are days where levels of CO2 have been growing slower than in the past, when our consciousness about our role in times of massive energy consumption is starting to be grasped and taken more seriously.

This perceptual change in the relationship between man and nature is reflected also in art. Unlike Land Art that accompanied the Great Acceleration in the 60’s and 70’s, artists in the Playing with Fire show a different sensitivity to the human place on the Earth’s systems. The works explore the relationship between human activities and their impact on the world from the point of departure that these activities have consequences, and we should try to identify these consequences in order to build a future. They investigate the power and importance of the concept of giving equal weight to all beings through the narratives of the past while looking towards the future. Thus, the participating artists in Playing with Fire examine the evident human impact on nature, the resilience of the planet and how it adapts to new environments. The projects in the exhibition make manifest in different ways our role as a geological force, and invite us to recognize the current situation as an opportunity for change. Technology, science and philosophy are coming together in a unique constellation that can surpass the limits of individual imaginations, and propose possible viable solutions that make the best use of our current fragile condition. Art can be part of this imagination, and help us envision futures where we see ourselves as part of the environmental cycles and as a non-destructive geological force.

Nature is resilient and adapts to our activities, to our errors and to our disasters because no matter what: trees keep blooming in Chernobyl – but humans don’t. This exhibition aims to present how in this period of transition, in which we need to reprogram our behavior, art can serve as a window to explore attitudes of the past, the consequences that they had and what is required from us in the present and the future, for there to be a future, rather than uncertainty. Today is the only remaining day to think about this because while we keep playing with fire, we need to prevent everything from blowing up.

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