[first published in "Open monument : research into ephemeral, commemorative architecture and modernist patrimony ; [on the occasion of the Exhibition Open Monument at Kunstraum Kreuzberg, Bethanien Berlin, 4th May to 16th June 2013] / ed. by Bauer Stephane and Marta Jecu."]
In 2013, just before Occupy Gezi started in Istanbul, I went visiting the technical Rahmi M Koç Museum with a friend from Centrul de Calcul, and I was profoundly impressed by a series of fairly classical glass display boxes and the artifacts contained therein, just near the entry hall.
At that time I was not sure if the local museum staff, the collaborating philosophers of science and technology, or maybe the exhibition curators were really thinking about the paleontological repercussions of their own displays. Maybe not. No matter, forcing the conclusions into a new mould, I tried to use that visit as an invitation to think about the unintended production of deep time, of the non-naive manufacture of ancestrality in an accumulating effort to ascertain a deep future as well as a deep past.
I started thinking that those were clearly the displays every technical Museum should start with in the distant future - with concrete speculative experiments about the afterlife of technology, of decaying and forgotten industries.
We are not talking here about an end, but about a sort of pre-recorded, pre-inscribed, and a definitely non-spectacular, consumatio mundi as an educational tool and metaphysical solace: the pertinent and tangible artifacts of a world coating itself up. A world producing its own growth rings and index fossils. The reconstructed Bosphorus seabed display exhibited a collection of contemporary objects dredged from the murky depths, the usual junk that ends up flushed into and is slowly accumulating in the world oceans.
All this was recovered after being intentionally or unintentionally dumped, or it ended up on the seabed, and then was exhibited right at the entrance to the technical museum. A bewildering gathering of encrusted commodities and home appliances such as flip-flops, Cola bottles, Sony Walkmans, glasses, loudspeakers, tape recorders, electrical sockets, vacuum cleaners, self-retracting tape measures, numerous plastic items, thermos cans, credit cards and wallets were all partially fossilized and covered by seabed dwellers such as oysters, tube-building polychaete worms and colonial barnacles.
If we leave aside its initial pedagogical and ecological impulse, these displays were unwittingly recording how industrial civilization, commodity fetishism and a feverish prosumer activity is enabling the rapid fossilization of the now, and constitutes a sort of immediate paleontological horizon of the future present.
Within these limited, glass-encased rectangles we will discover how planned obsolescence is conspiring with ancestrality, how the production and invention of a remote past is making itself felt at the level of these objects that have fallen into the abyss. In a very devious and unintended manner, planned and in-built obsolescence will influence our perception of the role of fossils, and how future paleontology will become part of an extended dumpster diving practice. What is slowly emerging is an unlikely alliance of time forging enthusiasts that group together as fossil manufacturers of all sorts: artists interested in future paleontology, poetic technology fans, animatronics workers and designers in dinosaur parks, inventors of lost civilizations, and archaeologists of theme parks and lost movie sets.
The cheap consumer goods of the present can easily be covered with crusty mineral deposits, a first level of fossilization, an ongoing biochemical process that insures their partial and rapid fossilization after being conquered by ‘benthos’: the bottom line of a deposited reality made by plants and animals living on, and in, the abyss.
I think that planned and in-built obsolescence is already doing the work of the demiurge entity Philip Gosse was talking about in his monumental and monstrous book Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot written in 1857. A book reviled by both contemporary theologians and geologists, even as it was meant to pacify both evolutionists and biblical literalists. Jorge Louis Borges was the first to rediscover Omphalos in a short text entitled The Creation and H. P. Gosse, and to reassess its forgotten thesis as an involuntary and elegant reduction of ex-nihilo creation to absurdity. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould also rediscovered the Omphalos hypothesis in his Adam's Navel article, as a perfect example of the untestable, as it cannot differentiate between fossils as prochronic data, or as examples of an extended and uninterrupted history.
Well let’s consider this book to be relevant in another way, not so much for exposing the fallacies of creationist thinking or faulty epistemology, but for introducing us to the practicalities and open possibility of forging and promoting ancestrality.
In short Philip Gosse’s Omphalos thesis is about a universe being built so as to have the appearance of old age, when in fact it is a recent contraption for concentrating and condensing amounts of time in a very short space of time. In the end we are left with a demiurge that is, in the eyes of one of its early reviewers, nothing but a Deus quidam deceptor ‘God who is [not only] sometimes a deceiver’ (Rev. Charles Kingsley) but most of the time is a cosmic liar and fabricator of innumerable fossils proofs, of both organic and inorganic origin: artifacts, numerous objects, rivers, celestial bodies, even the scars on a Pandanus palm trunk, all intricate hoaxes that pretend to have a past, mimicking their own way through ancestrality as part of a grandiose troubleshooting test. This whole book is an immense and detailed illustration of what Gosse calls the Law of Prochronism in Creation trying, for example, to demonstrate how even the great antiquity of coprolites, fossil faecal remains of ancient animals, are just elaborate temporal fakes, pre-implanted there by the cunning universal creator (Conclusions, 335-372) so as to present a false but perfect proof of a previous meal.
Now we can see how Gosse's monumental contribution here is to have shown cosmogony as an immense act of prochronic deception, and how this would work out: how history may become, soon enough, an elaborate set-up of deep temporal succession, easily forge-able with enough in-built obsolescence at your disposal.
While the human-machine excavation and extraction is churning and atomizing the planet’s surface, further jumbling up an imperfect fossil record, and reshuffling and re-arranging a constantly shifting stratigraphy, Dinomania has itself been a motor for remaking the past and shadowing paleontology's biggest success.
In 2012 and 2013 itinerant animatronic dinosaur XXL shows have been taking European cities by storm. Early in 2013, Australian billionaire and coal mining magnate Clive Palmer ordered 165 life- sized dinosaurs directly from China for his Palmer Coolum Resort. This will become the world's largest dinosaur exhibit. Ancient life isn't ferocious on its own, in its monumental reptilian forms and shapes, it also needs the crushing power of numbers and quantified data. The mechanical 20 meter high dinosaur (actually a crocodilian) Deinosuchus, while undergoing construction in China, is already being advertised and promoted as having a bite force of 18,000 newtons.
The mechanical wonder of animatronic dinosaurs resides not so much in their swaying tails, blinking eyes and heaving chests, but in the big data of their monumental size and titanic weight. They can be regarded as a new branch of monumental art, even though dinosaur sculptures have been populating parks and museum courtyards since the Victorian age.
To date, the dinosaur park has already received over 200 objections from locals about noise pollution and parking, and one can follow the money-flow of making billions out of polluting carbon emissions that afterwards gets reinvested into huge, animatronic living fossils. The XXL shows are really the ultimate exhibition on offer, chiming with the new winner-takes-all competitive battles raging between cities and regions for hosting the Olympics or being chosen as the next European Cultural Capital (Andrew Ross, 2009).
Almost in line with Barnum, the travelling dinosaur-tainment seems to follow a current trend in mega-events, fusing, without much ado, economics with past evolutionary grandeur. Even if W. J. T. Mitchell (Mitchell, 1998) has been pointing to the temporal and transitional character of dinosaurs as cultural symbols in his The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon, there seems to be a permanent and rising demand for better and more realistic dinosaur robotics. In the bid for monumental gains, not only zoos and natural history museums are catering for the pre-schooler tastes in info-dino-tainment, shopping malls also want a piece of the action, although German visitors have been complaining about the poor design and scant information offered. The German engineer Caro Neigert, the man behind one of these traveling dino shows, complains about the transport difficulties when carrying such huge loads, and the fact that it only pays to visit big cities.
China has also been gearing up for a growing paleo-market with the city of Zigong in Sichuan Province being one of the centers for both dino-tourism based on the fossil-rich Dashanpu rock formation, as well as for factories producing paleo-life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, robotic animals, skeleton & fossil replicas, theme park dino rides, fiberglass statues and playground equipment. Zigong Dinosaurs World Science & Technology Co. Ltd is one such contemporary manufacturer of ancestrality, with customers in the Czech Republic, the UK, Italy, Poland, Spain, Denmark, the Ukraine, Venezuela and the US. Engineering and art skills derived from both the heavy machinery of the industrial age and the sculptural monumentalism of propaganda are being fused together by combining various casting and sculpting techniques, using special resins, latex and paint-brushing.
We've been getting used to an air of industrial extinction blowing around heavy tractors, industrial complexes, co-operative farms and giant construction machinery. And it's no irony that the animatronic branch of robotics, powered by pneumatics and hydraulics, has been responsible in the post-Fordist era for re-animating ancient giant beings and reconstructing extinct biomes.
The whole planet seems to be strewn with the carcasses of extinct heavy industrialism, the humongous remains of planned economies and abandoned research and development programs. The whole industrial graveyard of the world factory isn't just a result of the lack of fit-for-purpose value, the lack of competitive edge, or the end of history, it is a constructed prochronistic landscape: technology and architecture are being recast as prehistoric, as obsolete, as something that had to become extinct, derelict and broken down.
Another interpretation is made available to us through the works of Swedish artist and designer Simon Stålenhag. Stålenhag’s style has been influenced by both local artists specializing in landscape and animal art, like Gunnar Brusewitz and Lars Johnsson, as well as by the conceptual sci-fi works of Syd Mead and Ralph McQuarrie.
Nevertheless, I think that his alternative universe speaks volumes about our current no-other-alternative present, about the accelerated decay and imposed obsolescence that has been marshaled by exposure to market forces, and the rise of corporate and managerial bureaucracies. Stålenhag's works act not just as elegant metaphors for a slowly crumbling Scandinavian welfare system (one of the best in the world), but also as over-determined examples of expected Big Government failure.
If the looming remains of large-scale robotization and mechanization seem to share quietly and peaceably the same pastoral countryside landscape with living dinosaurs, as part of the same unfinished extinction-level event, how does this affect our visions and dreams of imminent progress?
David Graeber was one of those writing about a current regressive shift in science & technology as a catastrophic movement from 'poetic technologies' to 'bureaucratic technologies' which would explain why most of the futuristic prophecies of the last 50 or 60 years have failed to bear the promised fruit. Just think of anti-gravitational technology, teleportation, widespread household and agricultural robotics, no more pandemics, not to mention viable colonies on Mars and that eternal promise of 'the end of labor'. In his article Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit Graeber challenges capitalism as a form of triumphalist, linear progressivism, and tries to look behind the New Economy rhetoric of unfettered technological innovation and unabashed economic efficiency.
Simon Stålenhag's hover harvesters are maybe there in the field in order to make us understand how the 'future' of big (dino) science projects, as well as blue sky research, is being recast into a never-never land, a complete no-go zone for investment or research. This future is being discredited not only by relegating it to the past, but also by deriding its collective dreaming power and daring predictions, even if the answer to this should not be a hymn to smokestack industries, or a return to productivist extravaganza and the liberty to pollute.
For both behemoths of the Cold War Era there was more than a sense of saurian modernist gigantism at work in both their dreams and nightmares, especially in the heyday of the space race and also in the realm of non-scarcity and agro-technology. There was a troubling cult of big numbers, an appetite for Guinness Book of Records statistics and pumped-up figures. This required oversizing is reflected by engineering over-production, ending up in a contest to select only gigantic ultra-pumped legumes, fruits or seeds, so that nowadays containerization and 'cold chain' distribution is changing the way legumes taste, smell, look and withstand the effects of their intercontinental journeys. In a big reversal from previous lofty ideals, wherever we look today's technological upsurge and scientific bravado seems to be generally geared towards just improving apps, controlling war drones, reverse-engineering the climate catastrophe, or subsuming quantum physics into high-frequency trading.
The great Baikonur 'cosmodrom' launching pad, the size of Belgium, or what has been called jokingly and endearingly 'the (Soviet) Unions trampoline to space' is planted exactly in the middle of a semi-dessert. Its huge, space-age scaffolding and almost steampunk technologies lie deeply embedded in the local landscape, and among the giant space rockets we can often see herds of Bactrian camels grazing all around. Here lies the recognition that the ground zero of sci-fi cosmic visions and technological progress has a very material basis and terrestrial location. In one sense, the industrial construction technology that made monumental architecture possible was hidden out of sight, never left to stay, continue building, or even rot in its final resting place.
A pointed case, in this regard, is the premature burial of most of the construction machinery under the ground, just before the opening of the unfinished Casa Poporului in Bucharest, Romania or Ceausescu's Palace as it was called, hailed the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.
Whether you call them Cosmic Communist Constructions (Frederic Chabin) or Trespassing Modernities of Post-Stalinist Soviet Architecture (a show at Salt Galata, Istanbul) or just Forget Your Past-monumentalism, (Nikola Mihov, 2009-2012), one is accumulating remarkable examples of prochronic production. In a very short time period, the mountain top Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party has not only been described as an alien spaceship stranded far from its home planet, but as the gigantic remains of an unintelligible past, remains that need the same sort of piecing together as the old Mayan city-states of Calakmul or Tikal.
By encouraging and fomenting their putrescence, the architectural and monumental remains of socialist civilization have been transformed into something akin to a lost and buried civilization whose hieroglyphic past and devotional representations are now groomed for a mostly theme park existence.
Theme-parking paleontology or theme-parking lost civilizations is an old task, now part of a cycle of premature burial and archaeological prochronic rediscovery itself.
Hollywood has been busy sinking its own sets and rediscovering them, as in the City of the Pharaohs, one of the largest movie sets ever built that was dug up again in 1982 and transformed into an archaeological attraction. This pseudo-city, an American version of an ancient Potemkin village, had walls that rose 110 feet high and sprawled 750 feet in width, and was flanked by 21 sphinxes and four 35 foot Pharaoh statues. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the silent movie The Ten Commandments here in 1923.
And in the prophetic words of Jarell Jackman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historical Preservation, more is to come, as ‘some archeologist may be uncovering Disneyland 500 years from now’.
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