Barbara Casavecchia

No Man Is an Island

Related project: aiPotu: Demonstration Island / Paint it Black (Save Engebøfjellet!)

The text was commisioned for and published in The Imaginary Reader Volt 2016 ISBN 978-82-303-2814-9 The book is funded by Arts Council Norway, City of Bergen, Fritt ord Foundation and Public Art Norway (URO).

Minecraft is a popular digital game with a self-explanatory name and concept: its aim is to mine materials and craft them into new objects. With its “naturally generated” and “naturally created” blocks, either positioned or removed, players can invent all sorts of buildings and environments, including large floating islands – paying homage to the whimsical Laputa described by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels: a flying, circular island suspended in mid air above the sea by means of “magnetick virtue”. Minecraft’s world is populated by living creatures and ever-changing landscapes, where biospheres and natural disasters are contemplated, but development remains potentially infinite and environmental catastrophes never loom on the horizon. In 2015, the Strange Loop Games com­pany announced that their studio will develop Eco, a new open-world multi­player game based on Minecraft and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, where the key to each player’s survival will be the judicious administration of limited natural resources. Eco’s future laws will have to be backed up with scien­tific documentation, i.e. with data emerging from the game itself and its eco-logical learning paradigms, based on trial and error. Useful lessons, I imagine, will be learned by studying the disruptive expansion of floating islands made of plastic debris and garbage, like the monstrously real North Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Great Pacific garbage patches currently polluting the Earth’s oceans and affecting hundreds of species, including ours. Humans have managed to generate marine Laputas IRL (in real life), but unfortunately only trashy ones.

Like generations of readers before me, I wish our lives could be ruled by the rationality and wisdom of Swift’s Houyhnhnms, instead of aligning with the dumbness of Yahoos, at least in terms of decisions investing public assets.

I live in Italy, where every day tons (quite literally – the approximate figure is over 9 millions tons per year) of blindingly white marble blocks are excavated from the Alpi Apuane, the Tuscan segment of the Alps. The quarries are visible to the naked eye, so that even under the hot summer sun, the mountaintops look as if they are perennially covered in snow. If in perfect shape after being cut, the slabs are transported by truck to the nearby Tyrrhenian sea, and shipped to distant locations, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. If chipped, partially damaged or broken, as happens to a huge portion of the materials extracted, they are finely ground to marble powder – i.e. pure calcium carbonate, a multipurpose constituent. When mixed with resins and other components, it is used to obtain cast tiles and prefab slabs; when added to glue, paper pulp, polymers, stucco, industrial colours and cosmetics as a pigment, it improves their hardness and/or whiteness, thus reducing the use of titanium dioxide. Marble powder can also be used as a filler in fertilizers and to improve the performance of filters for aque­ducts, since it absorbs polluting agents; it is also increasingly employed in coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides. Surprisingly, one of the most common uses for calcium carbonate is as basic ingredient for whitening toothpaste. Destroying entire mountains and their ecosystem in order to help people have cleaner teeth is one of the cringing paradoxes I find it hard to reconcile with. It happens on a daily basis, and once destroyed, our blocks “naturally generated” definitely cannot be recreated by the magic of an imaginative click.

There are other ways to obtain white pigments for toothpaste (and even ice cream). And they too cause the destruction of mountains, as is about to happen in Engebøfjellet in Norway, which hosts one of the world’s largest deposits of rutile, the mineral on which the production of titanium dioxide is based – the local ore being particularly valuable, because virtually free of radioactive uranium. The Nordic Mining company has been granted governmental permis­sion to exploit the vein and hence remove part of the mountain’s body. The tech­nique, called “Mountain Top Removal”, is widely employed all over the world to extract carbon. The resulting 250 million tons of waste will be dumped in a planned seafill created at the deep bottom of Førdefjorden below, where marine biologists and ecologists are warning against the destruction of unpolluted wild­life and contamination of waters by heavy metals. Protesters are questioning the reliability of scientific data provided by the company and the public institu­tions involved in the process of evaluation. “While the older problem of science studies was to understand the active role of scientists in the construction of facts, a new problem arises: how to understand the active role of human agency not only in the construction of facts, but also in the very existence of the phenomena those facts are trying to document. The many important nuances among facts, news, stories, alarms, warnings, norms, and duties are all mixed up. This is why it is so important to try to clarify a few of them anew. Especially when we are trying to understand how we could shift from economics to ecology, given the old con­nection between those two disciplines and the “scientific world view”, writes Bruno Latour in Agency at the time of the Antropocene. “We would need a new Bertolt Brecht to depict how, on talk shows and on Fox News, so many people (for instance, the Koch Brothers, many physicists, a lot of intellectuals, a great many politicians from left and right and alas quite a few cardinals and pastors) are now ridiculing the discovery of the new —also very old —agitated and sensitive Earth, to the point of being in denial about this large body of science”. The evidence of potential collective disaster is there, but the stubborn refusal to acknowledge it has become standard practice.

So what can an installation titled Demonstration Island / Paint it Black (Save Engebøfjellet!), shaped as a floating platform and equipped with DIY banners planted in an ordinary trash bin, do to help viewers see what’s going on? The interventions of aiPotu often verge on the absurd and the surreal, homoeopathi­cally counterbalancing the insanity of society and social mores with a healthy dose of irrationality and uneconomical wastefulness. For instance, they once bought a set of small pine trees in a supermarket in Finland just to replant them in a forest of the area. Their “Island Tours” transform individual explorations of actual islands – even when their boundaries coincide with those of a continent, as in Australia, where the Norwegian duo (aka Anders Kjellesvik and Andreas Siqueland) created a project for the 2008 Sidney Biennale – into projections of what an ‘insular’ state of mind or exception may represent. “Islands are imaginary places of the mind. They come to the surface and exist as a temporary ground where our travelling memory can rest. Islands remind us of the great forces in nature where there is a constant flux of creation and destruction. A mountain becomes an island when surrounded by water. A black spot in our memory when we think about what it used to be”, they state.

Afloat on the waters of Lille Lungegårdsvann – the once-natural and now octago­nally-shaped lake at the heart of Bergen, once connected to the nearby bay by a strait, artificially filled in 1926 – their fragile island calls attention to what other floating islands could be, if environmental thinking was sounder. Utopia, as Thomas More called his book On the Best State of a Republic is an island too, forever afloat above our heads whenever we need to think of a New World and its possibly better order.

Barbara Casavecchia

Barbara Casavecchia is a writer and independent curator based in Milan, where she teaches at the Brera art academy. She is a contributing editor for frieze, and her writing has appeared in Art Agenda, Art Review, D/La Repubblica, Mousse, South and Spike. With Andrea Zegna, she in charge of the public art project All’Aperto (Fondazione Zegna, Trivero, IT), with permanent site-specific installations by Daniel Buren, Alberto Garutti, Stefano Arienti, Roman Signer, Marcello Maloberti, Dan Graham and Liliana Moro.

All texts →