Introduction | All that Is Solid Turns to Dust

Anna Ptak

The seventh issue of Obieg takes on board exhibition space as the place where objects and actions are pressed into the service of creating new conceptual constellations. What interests us the most is the tension between the oppression of authoritarian forms of power and ecology, activism, and migration. In order to bring closer the intangible, ephemeral yet causative character of these relationships, we have chosen to employ the metaphor of dust. It makes it possible to describe situations in which a number of different spheres merge: the conceptual, social, organic, and geological. The texts published in the current issue of Obieg reveal a picture of space which has provided expression both for the moral dimension of ecology and the geological dimension of politics.

 

Thus, listening to both the noise on the internet and the echo-ecology of Teheran, the current issue reminds us that our blind spot applies only selectively to materials, and our senses remain particularly sensitive when it comes to, say, fossil fuels. The rest is learnt ignorance.

 

The starting point for musings about the transformative power of dust is the exhibition which I co-curated in collaboration with Amanda Abi Khalil at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, entitled kurz/dust/ghobar (2015), which could be described as the “psychotic reading matter1 of Zamek Ujazdowski. There has been an incessant exchange going on between the minute particles of the fabric of the building, the biological micro traces left behind by visitors (the majority of the particles in domestic dust are tiny specks of peeled off epidermis) and the matter of the sculptures and installations. Above all, however, this was an exhibition that gradually obliterated the difference between “dust as a metaphor for the blurring of elements of social and material realities with the tangible, if ephemeral, results of the “erosion of the building of Ujazdowski Castle. The collaboration between artists from Europe and the Middle East has made it possible to relate the issue of dust to unexpected constellations geographical, conceptual, and ecological. We have been especially interested in, on the one hand, the phenomenon of migration, war, and colonial activity, and on the other hand, in emancipatory processes and protest movements that subvert the traditional divisions into nature and culture. In our take, which originates with the metaphor of dust, congruent with the principles of the “new materialism,2 we see a gesture of rebellion against the increasing instrumentalization of identity whether religious, ethnic, cultural, or national as a means of realizing political activity. In the current issue of Obieg, we follow this theme in order to examine the aesthetics of oppression, generated by capitalism.

 

This focus of interest has directed our attention to current political geography, especially the Middle East and its perception in the West. The offensive of the so-called Islamic State has rarely been linked in the Western consciousness with the destabilization of the region caused by US military intervention such as the occupation of Iraq in 2003, in which Poland also took part, or the global climatic catastrophe that gave rise to mass migration. What has passed beneath our radar was the dismal drought that afflicted not only Syria but also other countries of the region. During 20062010 it affected agricultural land, with 75% farms in Syria alone affected by the disaster, and in mass migration to the cities. The dust-generating drought has not only displaced mineral molecules territorially but has also forced migrations of people, torn away from their local microcosms. The experiences of the region demonstrate that what can stop the migration is not just water but also oil. After Reza Negarestanim, we can point to the link between the organic remains that in time and in favorable conditions can be transformed into petroleum, and dust. “It is only petroleum, perhaps, that can cause the dust from the Middle East to stabilise.3

 

The dust of the desertified soil is able to turn to dust our notions of a stable, prevailing world order due to ignoring its borders. Faced with this, political geography has turned out to be no more than a rather crumbling construct serving to protect the dominant narrative. What disintegrates our known geography in particular, as an image of a world created to meet human needs, is if we come to realize the number of roles played in our bodies as well as in nature, and economy by phosphorus one of the most commonly encountered elements that appears in dust, besides others such as carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Phosphorus bombs, such as those dropped on the Syrian city of Homs, which contained white phosphorus, a substance that cannot be extinguished with water. These bombs contain the same element as the cells of living creatures. The active substance of the incendiary bomb is fatal even in the smallest, “homeopathic quantity. On the other hand, the obtaining of phosphorus or saltpeter thus nitrates, or compounds of nitrogen, yet another element in dust from guano deposits, and finally their synthetic production has been a key industry that accompanied modern farming, profoundly dependent on nitrate-rich fertilizers. As Jan Zalasiewicz, one of the promoters of the concept of the Anthropocene, pointed out in the context of the early industrialization of England, the dynamic expansion of some industries in a given part of the world has been linked to removing risk outside and exploiting natural resources in other countries. For the geologist, the roots of the mass movement of matter lies in the history of British farmers in the period of early industrialization.4 In order to cope with demand for food, they used soil from cemeteries as fertilizer and then, in search of human remains, explored the battlefields of Europe. Clearly, the biblical “turning into dust is no guarantee of release from compulsory participation in a posthumous exchange of goods.

 

In previous issues of Obieg, we have already looked at the issues of extractivism and geophagia. In the current issue, we want to ask: What Flows and What Cannot Flow in todays world? In what way are bodies and territories subjugated to the framework of space enslaved for its purposes by capital flows, with roles and station in life set out once and for all?5 How do such definitions of nature that make possible a non-hierarchical understanding of subjectivity arise whether conceptually or through our senses or activities? Such questions signal our readiness following the exhibition, to adopt the concept of “dust as the key to new relational geographies. Spontaneous and amorphic, dust, which creates ephemeral constellations, is the opposite of various social “solid bodies: institutional, hierarchical, and aiming for centralization. As Amirali Ghasemi points out in his article for Obieg, dust can be what differentiates the periphery from the center, which at all costs has a drive towards remaining clean and visible. Dust has been pushed out to the periphery, its domain where it does not impinge on our consciousness until such time that it succeeds in percolating to the center. Then it begins to be perceived as the medium of chaos and a harbinger of danger, of the emancipation of peripheral communities.

 

Perhaps this is exactly why dust makes us see things more clearly, giving us insights into worlds that we do not usually see as capable of decision making, due to their lack of political representation. At the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, the existential philosopher Jolanta Brach-Czaina described the forms of female objectivity formed through mundane, sensual operations and interactions with the surroundings. These small everyday rituals carry an emancipative potential that is hard to ignore, providing an opportunity to step outside particular, cross-species divisions, enabling us to see labor in activities considered “automatic and even to question their boundaries. For Brach-Czaina, this ordinary “keeping busy is one of the main criteria for classifying our existence in the world. She sees such “being in the everyday, of which dusting is one example, as an existential formula that is shared by humans, birds, and insects.6 At the same time, wrestling with dust enables us to experience the instability of the basis underpinning our notions about what is order and what chaos. In fact, dust, or more generally dirt, that we instinctively place alongside chaos, reveals the order that we have until now chosen to ignore, and the order that we try to establish may turn out to be an usurpation and violation of reality. When we fight the elemental forces of dirt, says Brach-Czaina, “truly drastic things happen. We destroy spiders webs. In that brief moment, we may perceive in our consciousness that what we consider chaos is just another form of order, extensive and natural. At that time, we recognize the force of destruction in our own actions.7

 

The critical potential of everyday actions also manifests itself in their mass nature and in “pulverization. In territories located near the movable “boundary of aridity that divides desert from the area of minimum rainfall indispensable for farming, dust floating in the air and constantly settling is tangible and ever-present, conducive to a constant “dusting action that serves for the negotiation of subjectivity. For the sociologist Asef Bayata, everyday life is a form of resistance. He points to the small acts of defiance performed by people not organized in any way against the reality in which they find themselves. He gives examples such as street selling, crossing national borders in search of a better standard of living or women performing “mens jobs.8 Such acts can have the characteristics of private sabotage, as in the phenomenon of la perruque, described by Michel de Certeau. This “wig covers up various activities performed during working hours, when workers are ostensibly engaged in performing services for their employer.9 This could be using office equipment for private needs, stealing ballpoint pens from the work place or surfing on Facebook. In Poland under socialism such behavior was rife, and it is now perceived as a form of opposition to the regime. It is certainly true that mass-scale actions by people not in any way unified in collectives can at a certain point reach and surpass a critical mass, with the result of qualitatively changing the surrounding reality.

 

These reflections have inspired us to ask in the current Obieg whether it is possible to achieve a more permanent shift in our outlook that would make us aware of its artificiality and enable us to get rid of, or at least freeze for a greater duration, the prevalence of the hierarchies that we take for granted.

 

Aware of the potential that is dormant, if not entirely realized, in dust, we would like to view it in a similar manner as did Georges Bataille, who saw in dust an agent of change. If we should remain blind to it, perhaps one day, taken by surprise, we will wake up like Batailles Sleeping Beauty, who, after all, as we all forget, was likely to have woken up with her face covered in dust and with spiders webs in her hair. Omnipresent in reality, if absent from the narrative, dust is a grey eminence a formless, invisible and constantly mobile causative force. Writing for Obieg, Przemysław Wielgosz notes that “The mobility of capital has been destroying genuine communities and societies, whilst bringing into existence virtual communities." Today, Marxs dictum that "all that is solid melts into air" could probably be turned into "all that is solid turns to dust.

 

Certainly, the dust formula, also in the Polish reality, provides a superior insight into the condition of “karaoke capitalism. Dust has a tendency to cross borders and obliterate contours, making it possible to join together what seems distant and alien. This is the case in Neda Razavipours performance Travelling Pieces as told by Olga Drenda, which reveals the history and cultural contexts of the “Polish chairs in Iran. The sediment of events and emotions also blunts the sharp edges of the brutalist architecture of Calabria. We see that an apparently antiseptic architectural idea has not been immune from life invading its territory according to the records found by Michał Libera and Michał Grochowiak. We publish a fragment of their book Nuova Europa.

 

David Maroto takes on board the question of how a religious “climate affects the creation of images. He uses a few short accounts to explore whether looking at the world of Islam through a flame one can see dust. Sohrab Mahdavi takes up the topic of ecological intervention in Iran, reminiscing about the eminent environmentalist and ecologist Kavous Seyed-Emami, who a few months ago during a “preventive arrest was said to have committed suicide in a government prison in Tehran. In turn, Elie Ayache writes about the contingencies that rule our lives, taking us on a journey through the illusions in which the derivatives market seems to lead to the ultimate sublimation of material, and the eponymous Black Rock has turned into musical dust. In the Dustopedia we present a selection of video works that touch upon the ecology of Tehran. Thinking about home with its divisions into private and guest zones, Daniel Kötter and Kaveh Rashidzadeh raise the social and architectural tensions in the peripheral districts of Tehran. Krzysztof Skoczylas recalls his experiences as one of Polands first exhibition architects interested in how the “Second World views the ways of presenting art from the “global south in Central and Eastern Europe. In Lorde Selys performance, dust settles on the keyboard, opening for us polemics with the aura of solemnity surrounding theoretical texts. As Reza Negarestani points out, dust is akin to liquid. In our concept, the polymorphic composition of dust also makes the texts open to being permeated by one another, so that concepts and notions can migrate and transpose freely between them.

 

Translated from Polish by Anda MacBride

 

BIO

Anna Ptak is a cultural anthropologist, curator of artistic research projects, focused on the ecological and political aspects of cultural practices. Editor of books, co-author of the international artist-in-residence programme and curator of exhibitions at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. She curated e.g. Amplifying Nature - Polish Pavilion at 16th Venice Architecture Biennale (2018), Maja Bekan: 23 Assemblies (2017), Blue Box. Five Pieces on a Background (2016, Izolyatsia, Kyiv), kurz/dust/ghobar (2015, with Amanda Abi Khalil), and edited Amplifying Nature. The Planetary Imagination of Architecture in the Anthropocene (2018), The Make Yourself at Home Guide to Warsaw (2015, with Rani Al Rajji and Monnik collective), Inicjatywy i galerie artystów (2014, eng. On Polish Artist Run Initiatives and Spaces, with Agnieszka Pinderą and Wiktoria Szczupacka), Re-tooling Residencies. Notes on Mobility of Art Professionals (2011).

*Cover photo: Black Lungs (Jharkhand), Rajesh Kumar Singh, 2018, digital photography. Courtesy of the artist

[1] The term used by Jalal Toufic in describing his film Credits Included: A Video in Red and Green (1995) in: idem, Over-Sensitivity, Forthcoming Books 2009, published online: http://www.jalaltoufic.com/downloads/Jalal_Toufic,_Forthcoming,_2nd_edition.pdf, [accessed: 4 May 2018].

 

[2] “New materialism is a multi-aspect intellectual trend and research development that has evolved at the juncture of humanities and sciences. It questions the duality of humankind versus non-human in terms of their causative ability. The researchers, philosophers, and writers that have contributed to this research include Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Olsen Bjørnar, Manuel Delanda, Donna Haraway, Elisabeth Grosz, and Graham Harman.

 

[3] Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia. Complicity with anonymous materials, re.press, Melbourne 2008, p. 88. Let us note that in Avestan the classical language of the ancient Persia, “naft simply meant “humidity.

[4] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_FbbXlgkgE, [access: 4 May 2018].

[5] Cf.: Neil Smith, Uneven Development. Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, The University of Georgia Press 2008, published online: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Manuel_Perez24/publication/261994781_Smith_N_Uneven_development_Nature_capital_and_the_production_of_space/links/0deec5362c1373b1a4000000/Smith-N-Uneven-development-Nature-capital-and-the-production-of-space.pdf , [accessed: 4 May 2018].

[6] “We belong to a hustling-and-bustling species; this is our everyday modus operandi, just like ants and dung beetles. There is no point in arguing about the actual proportional ration of such activity, as it is unquantifiable. The best we can do is to signal the specific existential dimension that opens before us; we access its potential through our humdrum busy-ness. Side by side with the dung beetle.

Jolanta Brach-Czajna, Szczeliny istnienia, Wydawnictwo eFKa, Kraków 1999, p. 61 [trans. A. MacBride].

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Asef Bayat, The Art of Presence, in: Life as Politics. How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Stanford University Press, Stanford 2010, p. 1920.

[9] Cf.: Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life, University of California Press, Berkeley 1988, p. 25.