1. Testing powers of transportation
This is a question that I am especially intrigued by in relation to Spiral Sunrise : who or what is being put to the test in this experiment? I’d like to think this project is first and foremost about Spiral Sunrise itself, and what it might be capable of. Will this sand-spewing miniature car be able to materialize the Amsterdam sunlight — first on the pavement of a still-to-be-decided spot on the Frederiksplein, and then, in London? Will it be able to capture, if not the freshness of a sun rising in the fairly un-smogged Amsterdam sky, then at least some of the particularities of an early morning in this city? It’s not difficult to think of things that Spiral Sunrise has against it in this respect. First of all, this is a solar-powered miniature car, a type of entity that does not exactly have a great reputation in terms of its sensitivity to “couleur locale.”
A previous occasion on which I encountered such a device was in Rotterdam, during some generic climate change publicity event, taking place next to the Erasmus Bridge. It was called the Formula Zero Championship, and was all about toys and boys, getting ready to race their solar- or biofuel- or electrically powered ‘vehicles’ down a broad stretch of sidewalk. It had everything to do with advertising, brands yelling down from the high fences surrounding the rather minimal, make-shift circuit, and very little with what artists call site specificity (and which Esther P. evokes by talking about the “Dutch light” in the experiments description?). The Erasmus Bridge could just as well have been the Eiffer Tower or an Egyptian pyramid or any landmark really.
Though it must be said that Esthter P. did put up a pretty good defense of Spiral Sunrise, saying that it would be unfair to demand that it captures localness in a way that for instance a painting seems capable of doing. Just a few Spiral drawings have been made so far, so there is very little to compare a given drawing to: how could it possibly be ‘specific’ under those circumstances? So I think what I will do is concentrate on the ability of Spiral Sunrise to capture “Dutch light”, as compared with other manifestations of this – as in painting. Are there other ways of doing “the Dutch light”? Ways that do not necessarily involve the projection of hermitically sealed, unmovable capsule of a Dutch Sky that we know so well from 17th century landscapes?
2. Other disputed capacities of transportation
But of course there is also the question of what has lured me into this spiral project and its concentric circles. Indeed, this question about capacities to “transport” a sunrise, or any other Amsterdam particularities, can be applied to me as well. For me this project is very much about Amsterdam, the city that I used to live in, and its not-like-anywhere-else blend of new media and culture. And its about a square that I know well and in many different ways. For several years I would hurry accross the Frederiksplein on my way to catch a tram. It is also the square that I visited on a high schooltrip, to the Dutch National Bank. I remember how we all wanted to see the gold, but weren’t allowed to, though we were assured it was there (!?). I could continue this list, and talk about how the Frederiksplein is in many ways not a typical Amsterdam square – it is relatively big, for Amsterdam, has quite a lot of traffic, and on Queens Day it is one of the few places where one can easily get through. And so on.
So, there it is, the Frederiksplein is currently turning into a past for me, and this is
where a spiral sunrise might be do something for me? It might offer a way of relating to Amsterdam that is not necessarily sentimental. That is, I am hoping that Spiral Sunrise, being a machine, with a ‘nonfigurative’ imagination — it doesn’t make photo’s, but draws lines with sand –, will enable me to resist the role of a ‘nostalgic subject.’ And still bring Amsterdam to London. However, this is not to say I am so naïve as to think that I can simply rely on the machine to neutralize my sentimental tendencies. For one, devices like this robot car open up a whole other world of sentimentality. When Esther first showed me a photo of her freshly built solar car, I immediately thought of Sojourner Truth, the rover that NASA drove around Mars in 1997 and that was praised for doing for the Internet what the Moon Landing had done for television: to bring the world together around it and thereby establish its presence as the medium of the age. I still have the Nature issue in which the full spectrum pink photographs of the Mars surface that the rover sent back to Earth first appeared.
3. Experimenting in/on everyday life
So, in terms of what is being put to the test in this experiment, I think I am willing to put myself on the list. Also, it is becoming clearer to me with the day that Spiral Sunrise actually relates to my current research in lots of ways.
For instance, I went to Manchester last week to give a talk about sustainable living experiments. Strangely enough it was only in preparing for this that it dawned on me that the experiment in which Esther P has enrolled me is not so different from the ones I have been researching the last months. Like Spiral Sunrise, sustainable living experiments, in which people commit to leading a less environmentally damaging lifestyle for a set period of time, and publish meticulous records of this on their blogs, are experiments situated in everyday life. And in both experiments, part of the point is to give a distant environment a tangible presence in such familiar settings – the sun in this case.
After my talk in Manchester, someone asked whether I wasn’t being overly optimistic, or unrealistic, in suggesting that everyday life provides a site of experimentation
with environmental lifestyles. He reminded me that everyday life has mostly been thought of – in sociology and philosophy – as a space of the routine, the realm of the ‘the taken for granted’. He argued that, if sustainable ways of living are to become more widespread, they should precisely not be seen to be experimental, but as boring and as self-evident as possible. His reasoning made me think about the difference between an experiment as something you do, and an experiment as something you get caught up in.
That is, it made me think of an argument made by historicans of technology. People like Ruth Schwarz-Cohen have described how the introduction of new technologies in the home – like the laundry machine earlier in the 20th century, or the vacuum cleaner – required everyday people to engage in experimental work. Those charged with household labour had to find out how things, tasks and wishes could be accommodated in the changed set-up, which now included a washing machine. (The PC provides another convincing example?). Crucially, this kind of work is not necessarily something people asked for, or realized was necessary.
Now I am thinking that this way of thinking about experiments may be especially relevant in relation to the environment. For instance, I certainly don’t have a “natural” interest in oil, gas or other energy resources that I turn out to depend on as part of my everyday life, let alone an interest in experimenting with them. But there is nevertheless something experimental about the ways in which they increasingly come to my attention – my relations with supposedly self-evident things like lamps or waste or the boiler are turned into a topic, into things that might be done differently…And I wonder whether Spiral Sunrise could be though of as another version of this kind of experimentation?