Eternity and the Anthropocene

Friday 9th Sept, 11.30-13.00, Room CG11

Chair: Elli Michaela Young, University of Brighton

How have designers dealt with notions of geologic or ‘deep time’ in their work? Themes in this session include the circularity of time and the idea that with the notion of the ‘anthropocene’, human conception of time must be reconsidered.

42134488_huxtable‘The Drama of the Soul’: Time, Eternity and Evolution in the Designs of Phoebe Anna Traquair
Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable, Principal Curator of Modern & Contemporary Design, Department of Art and Design, National Museums Scotland
E: s.huxtable@nms.ac.uk T: @clioclothed W: Institutional Website

The period 1850-1918 in Britain was a time of intense, and often highly contentious, scientific, religious, philosophical and cultural debate about the very nature and understanding of ‘time’. As a consequence of industrialisation and the growth of the railways, the measuring of time in everyday life was already moving away from traditional ‘cyclical time’ governed by the seasons and movements of the sun, towards ‘linear’ time dictated by railway timetables and the working day in factories. Further ructions were caused by the publication of scientific ideas and discoveries, such as William Thomson’s statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (1848) and Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), as well as the various geological and palaeontological discoveries of the period, all of which challenged the Biblical account of past present and future.

It was amidst this ferment of ideas and debates that the Arts & Crafts movement emerged, which placed the relationship between design and past, present and future at the very centre of its ideologies. Unfortunately, much scholarship on Arts & Crafts mistakenly interprets this engagement with time as backwards-looking nostalgia, something which this paper seeks to demonstrate as a fundamental misunderstanding of these ideas.

The focus of my paper is the work of the Symbolist Arts & Crafts designer Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936). It will explore ways in which she drew upon themes which directly engaged with these conflicting notions of time. Traquair, who often worked closely with her curator and palaeontologist husband, Ramsay Traquair, was fully au fait with the science of the age, but, nonetheless, she still seems to have been able to maintain her fundamental belief in the eternal life of the Soul alongside an acceptance of ideas such as Evolution. This paper will use examples of Traquair’s work in the fields of interiors, decorative painting, enamelling and textiles to explore the ways in which she actively sought to use her designs to reconcile the seemingly conflicting maelstrom of styles, periods, myths and ideas that threatened to fracture the very bedrock of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British society.

42134488_halland_rashidiEntangled Time, 1972: A Non-linear History of A Deep Future
Ingrid Halland Rashidi, Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo, Norway
E: i.h.rashidi@ifikk.uio.no T: @IngridRashidi

Can ‘time’ be thought of in a non-linear fashion, as a dynamic meshwork? The designer Gaetano Pesce played with the future in his dystopic plastic bunker displayed at MoMA in 1972.

In his book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, philosopher and artist Manuel De Landa claims that human hierarchy can no longer be sustained – and in this new world, linear causality, that is, “the simplest form of causal relations, simple arrows going from cause to effect”, needs to be re-worked. De Landa shows how causality works in a non-linear fashion as a dynamic meshwork. Drawing on De Landa, I will claim that in the new world of the Anthropocene the human conception of ‘time’ cannot be sustained and needs to be re-worked.

At the bottom of an elevator shaft on the ground floor in the East Wing at MoMA in 1972 time was unfolding, forming a closed loop. In the shaft of the abyss one of the works in the exhibition ‘Italy: The New Domestic Landscape’ was mounted and displayed. The Italian designer Gaetano Pesce had made a two-level bunker cast in brown polyurethane that played with the notion of temporality. The bunker was not produced in 1972, but discovered underground in northern Italy in an archaeological excavation in the year AD 3000 and the archeologist that discovered the plastic bunker was Pesce himself. After researching the underground shelter, the archaeologist assigned the structure to the year 2000 and the bunker was then completely excavated and moved to MoMA. The archaeological excavation in 3000 revealed that humans had been in trouble in the years around 2000. Although the exact reason for why humans had to seek shelter underground in 2000 was not quite clear, the archeologist concluded that an immense cataclysm must have been a factor. The archeological research team from 3000 established that it somehow had become impossible for humans to breathe, and they had to withdraw from the surface of the earth.

Geologic time, often called ‘deep time’, refers to the notion that time is not confined to the human understanding of time. What humans can understand, preserve and describe is not necessarily the one and only conception of time. A stone might be entangled in time very differently from Gaetano Pesce. In this paper I will draw on De Landa’s notion of ‘non-linear history’ to argue that the plastic bunker in the elevator shaft at MoMA was articulating a deep future, in which human understanding, preserving and describing was not necessarily the one and only conception of the future. Gaetano Pesce was working with the past, and playing with the future – a future that was beyond the linear conception of time. It was a dynamic meshwork of potentialities.

Time Perception, Design, Change and Transformation: Reassessing Gaetano Pesce’s Work
Dr Daniela Nicolosa Prina, Researcher and Lecturer, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, University of Liège
E: dprina@ulg.ac.be W: Academia.edu Profile

Many exhibitions have been dedicated to the work of Gaetano Pesce since the beginning of his career as a designer in the 1960s. Among the most relevant presentations of the Italian designer’s work, “The Future is probably already past” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and “The time of questions” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris were organized respectively in 1974 and in 1996; “The noise of time” opened in Milan Triennale in 2005, and, more recently, another retrospective, “The time of diversity”, was held in 2014 at the Maxxi, in Rome. All these exhibitions, prepared with Pesce’s active collaboration, shared a common element: their titles associated ideas and concepts to the notion of time, which therefore emerges as one of the central subjects in Pesce’s work. Nevertheless, previous scholarship has mostly overlooked this specific aspect, and has generally focused its attention on themes such as diversity, imperfection, non- standardised objects, and political activism.

This paper aims at filling this lacuna by analysing Pesce’s design thinking and production as well as the conceptual framework in which the abovementioned exhibitions were born, through the temporal prism. Indeed, the perception of time in association with change and transformation has always informed Pesce’s design philosophy and work, and represents a unifying element which allows us to connect some areas of his production which have previously been considered separately. Themes related to the passing of time or its circularity, such as the disengagement from cyclical manufacturing processes, the personal time, phenomena of relentless transformation, ageing, rapid consumption, sustainability and their relationship with present and future perspectives, have been tackled by Pesce and encapsulated in his designed objects since the early 1970s. Moreover, one of the salient features of his work consists in the merging of past and contemporary design approaches, which blur time boundaries and incorporate elements from tradition into present practices, therefore contributing to the addiction of timeless qualities to his work. An accurate analysis of Pesce’s objects and dedicated exhibitions will allow the discovery, over the years, of the development of his personal vision as well as the modifications in his design approach, in relation with the questions posed by contemporary issues, identifying a clear and systematic research line to which the concept of time provides clear structure.

The objective of this new examination is to serve as a complement to the already rich perspective through which Pesce’s design output can be understood, and reflect on the relationship between time, objects and processes.

Further Reading

Halland Rashidi, I (2016) ‘(Re)working the Part, (Dis)playing the Future’, being published in proceedings at Design Research Society 2016, 50th Anniversary Conference, Brighton, UK, 27-30 June 2016.

Huxtable, S-A (2015) ‘House Beautiful: Time, Eternity and Evolution in the Work of Walter Pater and Phoebe Anna Traquair’, British Association of Victorian Studies Conference, Leeds, August.

Huxtable, S-A (2014) ‘White Walls, White Nights, White Girls: Whiteness and the British Artistic Interior, 1850–1900’, Journal of Design History, 27(3): 237-255.

Huxtable, S-A (2014) ‘In Praise of Venus: Tannhäuser as Aesthetic Anti-Hero’, in:  Yeates, A and Trowbridge, S (eds), Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Huxtable, S-A (2013) ‘Whistler, The Peacock Room and the Artist as Magus’, in: Merrill, L and Glazer, L (eds), Palaces of Art: Whistler and the Art Worlds of Aestheticism, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

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