No Harmful side effects KIT and Rachel Chapman @Platform 2, July/August 2000
by Werner Hammerstingl ©2000


On June 11 this year I was anxious. I knew death could come strangely and quietly if things went wrong with an experiment (1) that was beginning on the other side of the world, in a facility called the "Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider",(the world's most powerful particle accelerator) in Long Island, New York (in theory, "RHIC could have triggered the runaway formation of a poorly understood breed of subatomic particle known as a strangelet, which "eats" all matter it encounters, a chain reaction that would consume everything everywhere") (2) . The monumental audacity of this project reminds me of the now famous activity by Louis Slotin during the Manhattan project in 1941 termed "tickling the dragon's tail" (bringing together two hemispheres of plutonium and uranium as critically close as possible without starting a chain reaction(3) .

As scientists play with dangerous toys we, the general public, are often unaware (as no doubt are they) how close to peril this activity might take us. Governments which finance and sanction research in particle physics, and a myriad of equally dangerous research projects do so under the banner of "national security".

The meme "I need security" has infected everyone who has the means to do something about it. Financially and socially advantaged communities articulate their pursuit of a secure life within a conundrum of contradictory strategies and technologies. On the one hand they are gravitating towards sheltered architectures (pun intended) in the form of the automobile , the secure home, the "gated community" ( an entire lexicon of new terms around automotive and domestic security and safety features has evolved in recent decades), the multi-function polis and ultimately, perhaps, the "off- world outer space community" introduced in Ridley Scott's "Bladerunner".

On the other hand the same communities actively, or at least passively support a system which seeks to discover more and more diverse technological means by which mass extermination becomes possible. Beyond nuclear we have the cheaper, less noisy and far more terrifying biological and chemical military tools of destruction.

We are caught in the monkey trap(4). We want security, personal, financial, national even global but the very agents, protocols and technologies we invent for this purpose and to which we cling like life itself can often leave us in a more vulnerable state. The task of providing security for the individual and the collective is not unlike the one given to Sisyphus by the gods: endless, in essence unproductive and ultimately completely pointless.

This proem brings us to the specifics of my discourse.

The title of the exhibition "No harmful side effects" can be interpreted in a number of ways. Consistent with my introductory comments I choose to interpret the title as an alert . If we place a question mark at the end, we are closer to a useful entry point to discuss these artistic projects by Armstrong and KIT. "No harmful side effects?" can fill us with silent dread because we have all witnessed a myriad of assurances where apparently safe and harmless products or conditions ended up compromising the very condition they were intended to provide.

Most commuters will probably never even notice these provocative works displayed in a subterranean passage that feeds into a busy railway station as they hurry past. I've observed them: shrouded in a sagging confidence in their highly centralised, sterilised, mechanised, urbanised post industrial lifestyle. Voluntarily subjects, submitting to the dumbing down of every important issue by the media, politicians and big business, they have steeled their hearts and minds against the provocation's of difficult thoughts and difficult art by cultivating the art of rejection and not looking.

But lets imagine they stop and contemplate (you did); what is this project all about?

Here are my thoughts (not intended to be prescriptive).

Territory/boundary/containment
Microscopically small spores, usually adrift in random uncontained journeys are given a semi -permanent "home", and in this exchange they reveal a great deal.

Rachel Chapmans fungal spores(5) negotiate boundaries and territory in several ways. Initially riding the air currents of the atmosphere and, once localised with growth structures that remind of the territorial maps of nations and states. Seemingly arbitrary lines signifying claim over space are drawn, reinforced and actively policed. Yet a growing variety of viruses, many deadly to humans, respect neither boundary nor quarantine. They come (in Australia's case) from the North, have names like the Nipah virus, Japanese Encephalitis, Hendra virus, Lyssavirus and Menangle Virus and piggyback their way across vast distances on carriers(6) .
The spores and viruses surround us invisibly (an ironic reversal of Foucaults description of Jeremy Benthams Panopticon) and we can only hope that they are benign as they enter our bodies and symbiose with our system. The recent outbreaks of legionnaires disease in Melbourne are a powerful reminder that infections from airborne microbial molecules can be contracted virtually anywhere and we are unable to predict with any certainty when we are at risk and when not.

Many of us will be reminded of the glowing claims by writers such as Damien Broderick who assert that we are well on the way to immortality as we are medically augmenting and repairing our disease and age prone bodies(7) (if we happen to belong to the technology and information rich contingent at least) are challenged by microbial pathogens. To dismiss spores as somehow less dangerous than viruses is possibly optimistic. Evidence suggests that spores are capable of causing harm to us and other species(8) .

Despite their worrying potential, the fungal spores cultured by Rachel Chapman in unusually large petri dishes are not only fascinating but beautiful in their strangeness. This beauty has even captured the mind of scientists. Scientific American featured a paper two years ago entitled "The artistry of micro organisms"(9) which commented on the aesthetic symbiosis between bacteria and environment.

Rachel Chapmans large vitrines which allow environmental phenomena to negotiate its aesthetic mark- making remind me of Marcel Duchamp decision to collect "New York dust" (1920) as a component for his "Large glass". In both cases the microscopic collects (contextialized and controlled by the artists choice of location/duration and scale) and makes itself visible as a visual and aesteticised phenomena(10) .

While it is tempting to continue this analogical thread by forming conceptual relationships between the mechanical homage's by Duchamps good mate Franzis Picabia and the exposed mechanical components situated around the issue of "crash" by KIT, I'll resist that temptation.

(Another) law of thermodynamics : "any system expands indefinitely until it meets resistance"

The KIT exhibit which consists of an automotive air-bag, laundromat lint as it's "stuffing" and seatbelts straps as suspending devices for the object as it's in displayed in a vitrine in a caricature - like state.

The airbag, usually neatly concealed and folded into a minute artefact (strangely dissociated from its name which describes a state it achieves for only a fraction of a second and only once in its life. During most of its existence an air bag is really an air-less bag. Georges Bataille reminds us of the inherent problem with taxonomia(11) : A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form(12) .

The taxidermal approach used by Kit gives the airbag a static, sculptural form. The exposed and de-activated container has lost it's mechanical purpose. It's display is now reminiscent of de-commissioned military hardware which, ranging from tank to howitzer, is often found outside RSL clubs or in the middle of country towns. It shares a sense of "being out of place" with these objects/instruments but at the same time, it/ they serve to remind us about an earlier function, when the apparat could take or safe lives.

Airbags too can kill and injure. Claims as to actual numbers of people saved by airbag systems are difficult to verify(13) whereas the numbers of injured or dead airbag victims are easier to come by(14) .

If the question arrises: "are airbags safe?" the answer must clearly be "no, not absolutely". But then again what is? I suspect KIT is not so much interested in the Ralph Nader terrain of automotive safety. Instead, I propose the airbag is aesthetic and conceptual bait to draw is into a discursive analysis of issues around the crash and its broader socio-cultural implications.

When Kit declares a necroscopic(15) interest in the crash its seems clear to me that this interest is not informed by the morbid curiosity that typifies the bystander at a crashsite, but instead because the social and cultural dimensions of the crash have narratives that significantly extend beyond where our culture has drawn its line of interest in the matter.

We measure life and death issues routinely using statistics. Statistically we have a similar risk of dying if we had visited the Melbourne aquarium since it opened or drove an airbag equipped vehicle.

So, when a watertower ends up signifying the same potential to kill us as some lunatic mass-murderer with a semi-automatic, we understandably perceive this environment less and less as the architecture of some technology augmented Shangri-La.

That inflames our ability to worry! We harbour angst about our security because of radiation, pollution, new viruses, cancer and now airbags and fungal spores. But clever marketing strategies have suggested a way out for the individual: overcompensate domestic and personal hygiene to the point of absurdity. So in the end we take control (the little we have) and become fetishistic anti - bacteria Rambo's in our domestic space. We reach into the arsenal of bugkilling aerosols at the slightest hint of bacterial or insect presence and eliminate the bastards by the millions. Feels good doesn't it?


Footnotes. (Please use the back-button on your browser to return to the section of text you were reading

1 Ivan Carvalho "Dr.Strangelet or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the big bang" in Wired 8.05, May 2000, pp 254-255

2 loc cit. Some scientists - among them Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey - have said that, in theory, RHIC could trigger the runaway formation of a poorly understood breed of subatomic particle known as a strangelet, which "eats" all matter it encounters, a chain reaction that would consume everything everywhere. Fortunately, most experts aren't worried. MIT physicist Bob Jaffe says the chances of RHIC-induced Armageddon are "exceedingly rare" bordering on nil, but as he admits, "you never know."

3 In 1941, the quiet existence of 31-year-old Louis Slotin was shattered when the United States entered World War II. Winnipeg-born Slotin, a brilliant nuclear scientist, was working at the University of Chicago when he was asked to join a group of scientists experimenting with nuclear fission. The team and its work became known as the "Manhattan Project," and would soon build the world's first atomic bomb. Louis Slotin's specialty was "tickling the dragon's tail," bringing together two hemispheres of plutonium and uranium as critically close as possible without starting a chain reaction. Slotin's life came to a tragic end at the age of 35 following exposure to a lethal dose of radiation.

4 A monkey trap consists of a jar tied to a tree. The jar contains a shiny trinket or a peanut . The jars opening is large enough to allow the monkey to reach in and grab the content but does not permit the monkey to retrieve its closed fist. The monkey can save itself from capture simply by letting go of its new posession. Many monkeys were caught however.

5 A reproductive cell produced by plants (fungi, moss, ferns) and some protozoa and bacteria. Bacteria also produce spores as a defensive mechanism. Spores have thick walls, and are able to withstand varying temperatures, humidity, and other unfavorable conditions. High temperatures are required to kill bacterial spores.

6 Penny Fannin (Science reporter) "The new viral timebomb" The Age, Melbourne, June 3rd 1999, page 22

7 Damien Broderick The last mortal generation New holland, Sydney, 1999

8 An early example is the following account: "The grub, the larvea of a large moth commonly called the "night butterfly", is subject to attacks from a vegetable parasyte, or fungi, called Sphaeria Robertsii. The spores of the fungi, germinating in the body of the grub, absorb or assimilate the whole of the animal substance, the fungus growth being an exact replica of the living caterpillar. The fungi, having killed the grub, sends up a shoot or seed stem; its lower portion retains its vitality and sends up another shoot the following year. " C. Fitton , New Zealand Scientific American, February 1899)

9 Eshel Ben-Jacob and Herbert Levine The Artistry of Microorganisms in Scientific American, October 1998 www.sciam.com/1998/1098levine.html

10 "...so dust might be allowed to settle for a period of three months (Man Rays famous photo shows the "dust breeding" process) to be finally fixed with varnish. This "breeding of colours" takes us closest to his ideal - the glass seen as a "greenhouse" in which transparent colours, as ephemeral as perfumes, will emerge, flourish, ripen and decay like flowers and fruits. (And spores of fungi W.H.) Richard Hamilton "The Large Glass" in Marcel Duchamp Anne d' Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (Eds) Thames and Hudson, London, 1973

11 The activity of classifying and naming things

12 FORMLESS: by Georges Bataille. In Documents # 2, May, 1929. Paris. (Reprinted in Denis Holier, Against Architecture : Writings of Georges Bataille. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London. 1992 (pp. 46 55).

13 According to American statistics an estimated 1198 lives were saved between 1987 and 1995 in the US because of airbags. By 1996 an estimated 30 million vehicles had been sold with airbags fitted. Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US Department of Transportation, Washington DC Third report to congress" Effectiveness of Occupant Protection Systems and Their Use" , December 1996 www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/airbags/208con2e.html

KIT remind us that some 150 people were killed by airbags in the last 10 years. STATISTICALLY thats in the range of 1 in every 200 000 occupants of airbag equipped vehicles.

14 There are numerous websites

15 Examination of bodies after death

Werner Hammerstingl, Melbourne 2000