PRINT September 2013


Microscopic view of debris from the September 11, 2001, collapse of the World Trade Center in New York. Photo: David Scharf/Science Faction/Corbis.

RISING SEAS AND BURSTING BUBBLES: Today, events both wildly unpredictable and apparently inexorable confront us at every turn. We live in a world defined by risk—environmental, economic, technological, geopolitical.

From the “risk society” (Ulrich Beck) to “disaster capitalism” (Naomi Klein), Fukushima to Sandy, market crash to global instability, we are surrounded by new and unprecedented risks. Yet these risks have arisen precisely during a period in which risk management— the science of prediction, probabilistic calculation, and control—has likewise become all encompassing. We both can and cannot predict the weather. This special section of Artforum aims to address the paradoxes, critiques, and symbolic and material effects of these tumultuous conditions.

Environmental risk and climate change, in particular, are at the crux of the pages that follow. But they are inseparable from the spheres of finance, science, violence, and power. If a generation of artists in the 1970s and ’80s—Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, Peter Fend, Agnes Denes, and Helen and Newton Harrison, among them—brilliantly addressed ecological crisis, they often treated nature as a thing apart. For many artists, architects, curators, and thinkers now, however, nature does not stand alone. It is part of a roiling universe of instability, of technological breakdown, volatility, and unrest. The ties that bind are made explicit in the artworks and projects featured here, from the spectacularized environment of Rain Room, 2012, to the earthquake-resistant designs of celebrated architect TOYO ITO; the critical lenses on government, capital, and infrastructure in the work of NILS NORMAN, IWAN BAAN, and MARTIN BECK; the poetic disquisitions on toxic seepage or televised ecosystems in the works of LIZ LARNER, WILLIE DOHERTY, ROSA BARBA, FRANK GILLETTE, and PAUL RYAN; the risk-assessment plans of GUY NORDENSON and CATHERINE SEAVITT; and philosopher VILÉM FLUSSER’s extraordinary meditation on the cow as a kind of prescient invention, a biological machine of the future.

In writing this introduction, I was reminded of my attempt to describe contemporary scenarios of risk in spring 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis. I wrote then of the fissures appearing in the systems of global control that are so often construed as “seamless and totalizing.” But I had no idea just how contingent, how riven at the seams, the world would become. This is what sociologist Ulrich Beck has called the risk society: a constant escalation of scenarios that we cannot predict. Unintended and unforeseeable side effects have everywhere become the main event. Modern systems of regulation and control are continually overwhelmed by outcomes for which we have no model, no data, no rule.

Indeed, to believe that such systems can’t fail—that they are infinitely powerful, adaptable, resilient, that even their collapse is premeditated—is to presume a kind of humanistic faith in man-made techniques of control. It is, in other words, to assume yet another kind of technological determinism: one that fails to understand the unexpected risks and ruptures, the accidents that may render received wisdoms about power and agency and causality obsolete. We should by no means underestimate the consolidation of sovereign authority or the spread of surveillance in the post–9/11 era, but we should question any simplistic assumption of an all-seeing, omnipresent governmental or financial power. That’s too easy, even comforting, and it makes for simplistic critical binaries, too.

“Our very mastery seems to escape our mastery,” the philosopher MICHEL SERRES has contended. Interviewed in the pages that follow, Serres ponders the tensions between nature and culture, science and myth, chance and control, the pressures that exceed existing mechanisms of containment. These are the unforeseen consequences that trigger crises, burst bubbles, systemic catastrophes—and alternate possibilities, too.

—Michelle Kuo