PRINT December 1992


Andrew Ross' Weather Report

AS MY PLANE CIRCLED away from Bastia the air was filled with smoke. Great swaths of northern Corsica had been set on fire, with thousands of hectares being consumed by the hour. There, the land is a symbolic target for anyone with an attitude, good or bad. Like the heather of the Scottish moors, the maquis that was smoldering and crackling above Bastia had a rich cultural and historical resonance: the plant that lent its name to the wartime French resistance has been associated, as a place of refuge, with many generations of Corsican outlaws and freedom-fighters. Lower down the slopes, terraces of crops were already blackened and brittle. Off to the north, the fires gave way to a different display of human destruction—the ruins of luxury coastal homes, targeted in recent years by bomb-happy nationalists. All of this in one of the most drop-dead gorgeous landscapes in Europe.

As spectacles of environmental destruction, such fires are often inscrutable to us. We have enough problems assessing the controlleduse of fire in forestry, or distinguishing between the sustainable fire agriculture of the Amazon Kayapó and the hideous conflagrations sparked there by oligarchic ranchers. The only clue I had as to the cause of the Corsican fires was vague knowledge of a long history of vendettas—fostered by geographic Insularity, sharpened by colonial influences—that seemed to be contributing still to the island’s modern catastrophe of underdevelopment, unemployment, and population drain. As it turned out, the fires were attributed to a troublesome alliance of interests between local boar hunters and cattle farmers.

This was the backdrop to one of the most unusual cultural gatherings of the year, a colloquium on ecology and technology organized by Kyong Park and Shirin Neshat (of New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture) under the direction of the maverick Amerigo Marras, and convening in a remote 16th-century monastery. Conceived in the spirit of reconciling “greens” and “technos,” often viewed these days as natural antagonists, the colloquium brought together, among others, representatives of Paris’ Avant Travaux, a group of Paul Virilio–inspired architects; Claude Faure, artistic director of Paris’ La Villette exhibition spaces; bioengineer artist Mel Chin; Neils Lutzen, environmental urban planner from Copenhagen; Neil Denari, complex-technology advocate from L.A.; James Wines, the New York de-architect; and from Corsica itself, geologist Jean-Pierre Vernet and bioregional architect José Tomasi.

The largest handicap to the proceedings proved to be our lack of knowledge about local conditions. Unbeknownst to us, an expectation of the conference, from the Corsican side, was that we would emerge with “practical” ideas for the ecologically appropriate development of a region desperate to avoid its likely post-Maastricht make-over as a tourist playground for northern Europeans, owned by Mafia and other foreign interests. Consequently, citizens from neighboring villages made fitful appearances at a conference that might just as well have been taking place in SoHo. The result could have been farcical. Who, after all, would expect a Corsican mayor to be asking avant-garde artists and architects how to develop his own backyard? Not even Luis Buñuel could make that movie.

The life of the avant-garde, of course, has evolved out of moments no less unlikely than this rendezvous, on an island that Rousseau prophesied “would one day astonish Europe.” And as for local solutions, Individuals will no doubt respond to the conference, projects will be pursued, international ties will grow; follow-up colloquia are already being planned. From my own viewpoint, the conference focused the difficulty of gauging how new attitudes about technology are emerging in the public consciousness. Among its participants, two groups provided a microcosm of extremes.

At one end of the spectrum were representatives from Baubiologie, a German group of architectural house-physicians pledged to combat “sick-home syndrome” in all its manifestations: positive ionization; microorganismic, chemical, and electrical allergies; poorly conductive building materials; low-frequency electromagnetic fields; radon, etc. The good life, they argued, could only come from living in structures in harmony with nature. Thus Baubiologie’s designs showed heliotropic houses, and buildings laid out according to the principles of Indian music, all of them in comfortable, suburban settings.

At the other end of the scale was a publicity hack from the Foresight Institute (“founded In 1986 to help prepare society for nanotechnology”), the propaganda wing of Eric Drexler’s nanotechnology research lab in Palo Alto. Talk of nanotechnology—the manufacture of clean, energy-efficient machinery from individual atoms and molecules—is usually accompanied by a good deal of dizzy hype, and this was no exception. Molecular nanotechnology, we were told, will be the next industrial revolution. Through protein engineering and the like, it will produce the abundance of our dreams. Every prop from the rust-less rhetoric of technological utopia was wheeled out as if for the first time. Every sentence recalled a familiar escape clause: we didn’t drop the bomb, we just built it.

However distant in outlook, the Baubiologists and the nanotechnologists seemed to represent the twin legacy of the 60s counterculture: the self-denying righteousness of the green foot-soldier and the self-affirming naiveté of the technofantasist. On the one hand the earnest moralist, suspicious of Faustian pacts with technology: “We must obey the laws of nature.” On the other, the brave new worldist, poised to snatch eternity from a nanograin of sand: “We can all be rich.” Of course these profiles are also full of national stereotype—Achtung and Gee Whiz—and of the spirit of the German Greens and the Northern Californian techno-utopians respectively. But however divergent, the attitudes toward nature that they embody are two sides of the same coin: the one preaches a servitude to nature’s laws“ of necessity, the other preaches emancipation from nature’s laws” of scarcity.

At this point in the ecological crisis we should have learned a thing or two: a) that there are no laws in nature, only In human society; b) that scarcity is not a natural condition but a human creation. And technologies based on natural elements, or imitating natural processes, are no ultimate guarantee of health, sustainability, or even biodiversity. Substances extracted from the Brazilian rainforest can be used in the most toxic chemical compounds. The principles of animal physiology are habitually used in weapons of destruction; the heat-seeking missile, for example, was modeled on the heat-sensitive snout of the rattlesnake. Biomorphic houses designed according to botanical principles—the growth rate of bamboo shoots, or the structure of a rose—are just as fitting instruments of social apartheid as housing modeled on industrial factories.

For a region like Corsica, with a peripheral status in Europe, the differences between the Bios and the Nanos capture some of the tension between the cultural conscience of the European core and the long reach of Yankee entrepreneurship. No one thinks Corsica really needs either clusters of luxury heliotropic houses, for wealthy foreigners, or a Nano Corridor. But white neither of these alternatives presents an immediate fix for the region’s problems, both represent development trends that might avoid the environmental nightmares of heavy industry and mass tourism. There is little In Corsican culture or history to prepare for such developments, however, and much that would offer resistance to the force of inevitability attributed both to Nature’s Way and Technology’s Way.

Those who are currently “for Europe” (the unification represented by the Maastricht Treaty) attribute the same sense of inevitability to History. They disdain regional nationalism, like that espoused in Corsica, for its archaic devotion to romantic symbols like the maquis, which, for all its blossom and scent, is basically an unproductive shrub. What we learned, if anything, from our meetings in the Cap Corse was that our debate between greens and technos will have to make sense in local contexts, where the powerful forces represented by forces like the “new Europe” are often in direct competition with cultural attitudes held by people with a long history of living on the land.

Andrew Ross’ books include Strange Weather and No Respect. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.