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.’

1.

‘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.’

2.

‘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.’

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