Monthly Archives: June 2015

Kathrin Messner: one world foundation

This article appeared in the FT‘s weekend edition:
Kathrin Messner
©Thomas Wirthensohn


Serendipity is what brought Kathrin Messner to Sri Lanka — appropriately enough, given the word’s origin. Coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, it stems from Serendip, the Persian name for the island. She and her late husband Josef Ortner had been searching all over the world for a second home in a place where their daughter could go to school. “When we first came to Sri Lanka, more than three decades ago, it was only for a vacation,” she says. “Then we fell in love with this country.”Born and raised in Vienna, Messner, now 70, studied economics in Salzburg and languages in France but was always interested in art and the social sciences. She met her husband in the specialist art bookshop she set up after her studies, the first of its kind in Vienna. “He came to my bookshop,” Messner says, laughing, “and that was that”.

Together, they founded the “museum in progress”, another distinctive and successful venture in the Austrian capital. With corporate support, at least initially, this private art association commissioned renowned artists and curators to develop projects and artworks to be exhibited in spaces where one would not ordinarily see art: on billboards and building façades; in newspapers; on television and the internet. It was, in essence, a museum without walls.

Running it meant the couple were fully a part of Vienna’s artistic community. Yet they knew they did not want to spend all their lives in Vienna, and found its art scene increasingly stifling. “We had two options,” says Messner. “Either to save our money and travel the world whenever we could or try to find somewhere else to settle down, so as to really go deeper into another culture.”

When they started visiting Sri Lanka Messner remembers how slow everything seemed. Elephants and cows could be seen alongside vintage cars. The capital, Colombo, had one set of traffic lights. “It was like travelling back in time,” she says. “Everything was so chaotic and disorderly. We were fascinated. And we wanted to try and stay here.”

Their first visit to Sri Lanka, in 1983, coincided with the onset of the civil war, the end of which Messner’s husband never lived to see. He passed away, unexpectedly, a few weeks before the Tamil Tigers were defeated by the armed forces, in May 2009. Although, according to Messner, tensions remain, the country has become a safer place, attracting tourists and developers alike.

Throughout the civil war, certain parts of the island, mainly in the north and east, were off-bounds and Messner has only visited them recently. But in the south, where the couple bought a plot of land in a small fishing village, Wathuregama, 80km from Colombo, things were more peaceful. The couple took out loans to buy neighbouring plots and set up the one world foundation.

On one of the plots was a family house, which the couple turned into a school. Partly financed by a guesthouse, Bogenvillya, which the couple ran, and partly by income from the museum in progress in Vienna, the school sought to respond to local needs. Nurturing artists no longer made sense to Messner and Ortner in the Sri Lankan context; education became a priority for them.

Long in the planning, the one world foundation will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. What started as a school for 100 pupils, taught by three teachers in as many classrooms, now offers free schooling and vocational training for more than 1,100 children as well as adults, and employs 37 teachers.

Buying the land to make it possible was a protracted process. It took years. Part of the difficulty lies in Sri Lanka’s undivided land policy. One plot of land can have more than a hundred owners, all of whom have to be bought out. “You pay them all and when you think the job is done, the next one comes along,” says Messner. “It’s difficult to find them all, but if they have deeds, they can tell you ‘Oh, this is my palm tree.’ You need a good lawyer,” she says.

Unlike many developers that have profited from booming tourism, Messner and her husband were committed to “fair tourism”, which the one world foundation embodies. The proceeds from the guesthouse, which offers lucrative Ayurvedic treatments and hosts artists and writers, fund projects at the school. Visitors effectively let themselves be pampered with the satisfaction of it being a “fair exchange” and “a lasting investment in the host country”.

It took a while to get this model to work. At first, the income from the guesthouse was not sufficient to keep the school running, especially as many of the regular guests were artist friends hardly in a position to support the project financially. “Two months before the tsunami came, we finally got it. The wheel was turning,” Messner says.

The tsunami, which hit the island on December 26 2004, destroyed practically everything and claimed many lives in the village. Messner still finds it difficult to talk about it. Faced with all the destruction, she and her husband had to resist the urge to walk away. With the support of the mayor of Vienna and artist friends who held an auction, they bought a former cinnamon plantation further inland and built a new school.

Messner feels her work is valued, particularly by the children and parents. But it can be hard going. Wathuregama is a remote fishing village and Messner is conscious that she must respect their way of life. Although she does not always understand their reactions, she enjoys working with Sri Lankan people and thinks Buddhism stands them in good stead. “The trouble is, they have so many holidays and take such delight in festivities,” she says with glee. “Sometimes I wonder how any work gets done.”


Ian Cheng

This review of Ian Cheng’s show at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo appeared on

View of “Ian Cheng,” 2015.

A “smart story” is how Ian Cheng describes Emissary in the Squat of Gods, 2015, the latest of his live simulations and the centerpiece of this exhibition. Neither a movie nor a video game, yet partaking of both, this never-ending auto-generative animation indebted to Japanese film director and manga artist Hayao Miyazaki is smart in more ways than one: It combines artificial intelligence with a slick presentation.

Placed aslant in relation to the wall on which the two-channel HD video is projected, a large white podium, whose single step viewers can sit on, bears the twin projectors, speakers, and cables. Two screens of different sizes, displayed side by side, present the same ecosystem, characters, and story from two vantage points: The large one offers a bird’s-eye view of a proto-community faced with the constant threat of an active volcano, while the small one zooms in on certain areas of this desolate landscape—its dusky violet backdrop conjuring volcanic ash and the dawn of time—and privileges particular story strands, such as the rise of consciousness of the eponymous emissary.

Consciousness does not exist in isolation or independently of language. In this fable of origins illustrating the inherently social nature of consciousness, the first faltering steps toward the acquisition of verbal communication made by our distant forebears are vividly portrayed, both visually (in the shape of white runic characters signposted here and there or gliding along the screen in clusters) and orally (as anguished monosyllabic utterances growing in complexity).

The Otolith Group: The Radiant and Medium Earth

This piece, based on an interview with The Otolith Group’s Kodwo Eshun, appeared in a Dutch translation in Metropolis M:

Kodwo Eshun: I wouldn’t have cared that much about geology until the Anthropocene and the arguments of the philosophers Nick Land and Reza Negarestani around questions of geo-trauma in the chapter ‘The Geology of Morals’ of Mille Plateaux (1980) by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, which is where we take the title Who Does the Earth Think It Is? Nick Land taught the people who became the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit of which I was a member back in the 90s. The Otolith Group is steeped in those ideas, and Medium Earth comes out of that trajectory as well. The films are small-scale experiments in how to envision the large questions of our time like the Anthropocene.’

‘The Anthropocene gives us a different time frame to understand the relations between scientific processes – whether those are atmospheric or geological – and human time. The Radiant (2012) is trying to link the two together but in a way that is not illustrative and didactic. It is suggesting through montage that there is a longer time frame. By making a link between 2011 and 1970, 1954, 1945 with the reconstruction of Tokyo after World War II in the opening sequence, we’re trying to say that the specific catastrophe of 3.11 is linked to the broader question of nuclearity in an anthropogenic context. 1954 is when you have black rain falling over Tokyo; it’s when the anti-nuclear movement comes in. Nobody would have used the term “anthropogenist” in 1954 but now we can see that that’s what it was: the beginning of an awareness of the climactic changes and environmental dangers.’


‘The Radiant has to do with unspoken forms of power and identification with energy that atomic power gives. The entire project of nuclear power is a Promethean endeavour in which science and technology gain control over fundamental processes of chain reactions for supposedly the good of humanity. The last person to attribute this kind of Promethean dimension to nuclear power was the philosopher Günther Anders, Hannah Arendt’s first husband, who in the 1950s wrote The Antiquatedness of the Human Species. The Radiant are those people who feel themselves to be all-powerful because of their identification with the power of the nuclear. The Radiant is Japan itself, and within that, Tokyo, the City of Light that you see early on in the film in an overhead shot from the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower. Tokyo is something like the evil twin of Fukushima, way up there on the north-east – a provincial, local, old-fashioned town that Tokyo people are somewhat dismissive of.’

‘It’s also an extremely animistic region. The Honshu coast, and Fukushima within that, holds on to the beliefs in an invisible layer of local gods, household gods, gods of sea, rain, soil, whom different households pay tribute to. The curator, photographer and theorist of photography Chihiro Minato – who also appears in the essay film The Life of Particles (2013) by Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato – says that radiation adds a second level of invisibility to that of local gods, which creates what he calls ‘a double invisible landscape’. When you go there your camera is useless. It cannot perceive any of these dimensions. This is why we have this sequence where the camera is being dismantled. It is a demonstration of the limits and impotence of the camera. The film is like a gathering together of different attempts to make sense of something insensible but which must be grasped, whether through visual, sonic or tactile means.’

‘We realized that the Geiger counter sounds used to measure different levels of local radiation can combine with bird sound, a kind of trilling, trebling sound. The Geiger counter is not just a sound; it’s a reading. It’s a sonic guide, which is maybe better than a camera. A camera can’t see hotspots but a Geiger counter can read the points where radiation connects – in drains, in gutters, in the points where water is stagnant. It’s where radiation is most intense and dangerous. A lot of Fukushima looks quite banal and overgrown; it doesn’t look like a terrifying catastrophe has happened. Minato calls this the “anti-ruin”. That’s because radiation doesn’t have a visual presence, unlike an earthquake. And so the sonic descriptions are more useful. In a sense the visual is blocking a lot of the understanding.’


‘Medium Earth has two meanings. The first is that there are mediums through whom the earth speaks, who act as channels for the language of the earth: terrestrial, geological, tellurian language. But you can see it the other way around. The earth itself is a medium, communicating with us through characteristic forms such as the weather, earthquakes, or lightening. This second is an animistic notion, and the first one, in which humans become the mediums for the earth to speak, is what I call a “pietistic relation”. The earthquake sensitives, people like Charlotte King, who feel the aches and pains of seismic incidents, remind me of medieval Christians or Catholics who experience stigmata. This corporeal, embodied relation to earthquakes to me is one of piety in the Christian sense of the word.’

‘Medium Earth can be described as a “notebook film”. We took the idea from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notebook films. He made a number of films at the end of the 60s, which we were very influenced by. Specifically Notes on a Film on India, Notes for an African Oresteia, or Notes for Filming in Palestine. The first one influenced Otolith III, which we made in 2009. Pasolini does not make the film; the actual content of the film – images, sounds, landscape, people – they all point forward in time to a future film in a future landscape that you don’t see but you hear Pasolini thinking about.’

‘The same is happening in Medium Earth: we have this composite mineral landscape made up of the different places we’ve been to. They are examples of a geological imagination, of “geo-poetics”. The term comes from an American essayist John McPhee. He’s a journalist but he has written these famous books on geology in which he travels around America with a geologist friend and the two of them read the deep history of the landscape as they move around it. What he represents is the assimilation of geological vocabulary into a literary form; he opens up the literary essay into the long-term span of geology. His essays start in the present and then they keep travelling back in time between the present of 1980 and the deep past of 3.5 or 4 billion years ago. The Anthropocene confronts us with this challenge to integrate geological, atmospherical, biospherical vocabulary. We have to integrate it into our vocabulary and then invent ways to make it visible, sensible, and create encounters with it.’

‘The aim is to make small-scale, face-to-face encounters with these large-scale phenomena. The figure of the ‘sensitive’ is a paradigm of the confusion we go through when we are faced with the confusing realities of the Anthropocene itself. We are not trained geologists or hydrologists or atmospheric chemists, and it is confusing for us. The sensitives are a useful guide because they create a cosmology out of their confusion. They create patterns out of their misinterpretations. And they believe in them.’

‘We have met such sensitives in California, which is a concentrated version of America as a whole. It is a geo-engineered state. Vast chunks of California were “reclaimed” from the desert. That’s why Medium Earth features so many parking garages. The garages are concrete deserts designed to stop you thinking about the actual desert and actual seismic activity. They are anti-environments, what Rebecca Sonic calls the ‘dark matter’ of the urban environment: the element of the urban structure designed to be overlooked. You go in them, leave them, and retain no memory of where you’ve just been and what you’ve just seen. But when you go there self-consciously like we did, you look at the cast concrete and you start seeing the cracks in it. A crack is a sign of hidden volume, the volume of forces below the earth, which only shows up at the level of a faultline. But you have to slow right down to see it. This is where a camera becomes useful because it sees more then the eye does.’

‘The film is an anthology of struggles to visualize, which is why the deadly beauty and enigma of this final sequence seemed like a good way to end.’