Last summer I went to Norwich to watch the artist collective HeHe launch their project Plane Jam from the roof of the Theatre Royal, as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Below is my report of the day, which I only recently finished and which touches on some themes relevant to this blog, including that of how material settings can be deliberately deployed to produce moral and political effects, which I think of as ‘environmental method.’
On the Art of Minor Modification in HeHe’s Plane Jam
One sunny morning in May I took the train up to Norwich to attend the launch of Plane Jam, a site-specific art project by the Paris-based collective HeHe. The plan was, as promised by the press release sent out in advance, to fly a miniature airplane out of a theatre building, the Theatre Royal in the historical centre of town. The small plane was to emit unusually big — for a plane that size — clouds of white smoke, thus producing a strange and possibly estranging variation on what must be a pretty routine occurrence in a town like Norwich as in many other places, the passing of a plane. The project was intended as a next chapter in a series of HeHe works provisionally called ‘catastrophes domestiques,’ a title whose meaning wasn’t exactly clear to me, but which invoked a range of things, including a number of publicity campaigns initiated by governments and business in recent years, which sought to bring global crises like climate change down to the level of everyday experience, in the process ‘taming’ or ‘domesticating’ these crises, robbing them of their more disturbing features, as well as, quite possibly, their capacity to disturb. (One recent example is a Renault tv commercial which features various very mundane scenes – a dinner in a restaurant, a trip to the supermarket – except that all appliances featured in them – the portable PIN machine; the cash register – are powered by small combustion engines emitting small clouds of smoke.) But HeHe’s project had caught my attention also for a more specific reason, namely as a possible instantiation of a technique that I call – for the moment – ‘environmental method.’
What are environmental methods? The term loosely refers to attempts to deploy material environments to modify human behaviour and/or raise awareness. Such techniques are today being developed in a variety of domains – art, design, human-computer interaction, social science, architecture and urban policy – as the concept of ‘behaviour change’ has come back into fashion, for no doubt complex reasons, which may or may not include a renewed preoccupation with lifestyle, increased popularity of registrational technologies of monitoring and feed-back, and a generalized sense of crisis. Whatever the reason, there are currently a multiplicity of environmental methods under development, those that operate on atmospherics (such as light and heat – eg the light in a chicken barn grows dimmer when the chickens in it get more agitated) and those that produce specific cues (for example, anti-ergonomics which make it hard to turn up a thermostat). Environmental methods, then, tend to involve relatively minor modifications of material settings in order to disturb embodied routines in some determinate way. As such, importantly, environmental methods are suggestive of an alternative account of what ‘environmental awareness’ might consist of. Rather than referring to a cognitive state of insight into the consequences of our actions, as in rational and utilitarian definitions of awareness, environmental methods invite a much more material and embodied account of it: awareness here becomes an effect of the disturbance of habitual, embodied ways of doing things, accomplished by way of the modification of everyday settings. As such, environmental methods also are of special interest aesthetically speaking. Among others, they invite a particular take on what is usually called ‘site-specific art.’ Can site-specific interventions in art, too, be approached as forms of environmental provocation? What kind of operations upon the setting, if at all, are specific to this type of aesthetic intervention?
Arguably, the work of HeHe can be understood as both a creative exploration and critical reflection of environmental methods. Their projects alter everyday settings ever so slightly and sometimes absurdly, introducing fictional elements into mundane environments, like a giant green cloud projected onto a smokestack, as in their most famous project Nuage Vert, or making an iron fly. Thus, in a recent piece, Domestic Catastrophe 1, a flying iron swings around on an invisible wire suspended from a motor fixed to the ceiling, emitting disproportionally large white fumes. In Plane Jam, the project I came to see for myself, HeHe let a small airplane fly our of the Theatre Royal, or more precisely, between the Theatre Royal and the next door Dencora House, a quiet residential block. The insertion of the miniature aeroplane into the historic centre of Norwich, too, effected a minor modification of the setting (even if we should also note that, in some ways, this small intervention wasn’t minor at all, and required extensive negotiations of health and safety regulations). But, as there is no measure by which we can estimate the size of a plane in the sky, a viewer might easily be tricked into believing this was just a plane flying by, except, that is, for the white fluffy smoke and wiggling that only miniature planes do. Only model aeroplanes, that is, make the type of jerky movements that Plane Jam made, meaning that it could never be fully credible as a plane. And the fact there is something off may just be strong enough to catch someone’s eye. It is then through the relatively slight disturbance of a routine circumstance that HeHe’s project seeks to achieve its strongest effect.
In orchestrating minor disturbances of the mundane, one of principal techniques deployed in Plane Jam, as well as other HeHe-engineered domestic catastrophes, is that of the modification of scale. Scale manipulation is a tried and tested method and feature of site-specific art, ever since the land artist Smithson built his Spiral Jetty in the salt lake near Salt Lake City, and produced a video showing a very small looking artist running around in his sizeable artwork (which was filmed from a little aeroplane flying overhead). But scale manipulation in site-specific art – and the more particular tactic of ‘miniturization’ deployed by HeHe – might also be understood as offering a commentary on socially predominant instances of it. One could say that in our societies there is a strict hierarchy of different forms of ‘miniaturization’, and this we need to address. That is to say, as regards the capacities of miniturization – what it is supposed to make possible – there seems to be substantial inequality among different experimental regimes, say science and art and ordinary life. Thus, the scientific laboratory has been described as basically a machine for scale manipulation: by miniaturizing a phenomenon, say the outbreak of a disease or a flood, the laboratory makes the phenomenon made available for human intervention (Latour, 1988). However in other cases, say attempts to bring global environmental issues down to the level of domestic life, in campaigns for sustainable living, miniaturization seems to enable a rather pedagogic mode of being in the world. Here the miniature setting of the home is to make it possible for ordinary (little) people to familiarize themselves with big issues, like resource scarcity or peak oil, but not much more. In the one site, then, the scientific laboratory, miniturization holds the key to power (over nature), while in the other case, the home, it is equated with myopism and ordinary people’s lack of agency. Where should we locate a site-specific intervention like Plane Jam on this scale?
One possibility would be to say that Plane Jam offers a way of scrambling the scales of ‘big’ and ‘small’ scale manipulations, by occupying an uncertain location like the roof of the Theatre Royal, which is neither a domestic space, nor the sacred world of the laboratory, and thus frustrating our learned habits to relegate scale manipulations to either side of the spectrum going from capable laboratory sciences to incapacitated domestic subjects. At the very least, there is an argument we can extract from Plane Jam. And this is its insistence on, and cultivation of, our capacities to see things out of proportion – rather than in proportion. This seems increasingly necessary to the ethical and aesthetic life in technological societies. That is, rather than needing to see things ‘in proportion’ as 19th Century English moralists would have it, we 21st century people need the assumed proportionalities of everyday life to be messed with, in order to be able see things clearly and squarely. Rather than needing to grasp the ‘proper proportions’ between, let’s say, the pleasure we derive from airflight and environmental harm, what we need rather is the proportions of things like aeroplanes and their emissions to be pushed out of order – the more slightly, the better – in order to be able to take notice of them.
Crucially, moreover, we need props to achieve this type of perceptual effect: only with the aid of devices like Plane Jam will we even be able to perceive ‘environmental issues.’ I guess this is how I would like to read the term ‘catastrophe domestique.’ It gives a very particular meaning to the term disturbance, where it is not so much about a wild and sensational provocation of morality for its own sake, but rather the trickery that is today required for anyone to take notice of disturbing affairs that are difficult to localize, and for this reason, among several others, are adequately presented by the figure of the cloud.