A question of technique?

Photo Dénes Farkas

I won’t bore you with the how-to-calm-yourself-after-seeing-a-dead-body techniques at which all Lebanese become experts, although we are each adherents of different schools of practice. [1] 

Unlike Aalyia Saleh, the protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, other Lebanese, and probably many other nationalities, I can claim nothing like this. I do not have any techniques whatsoever to be used if I were to encounter, on my way home, a body of someone shot dead in an all-too-routine shootings of an armed conflict. However, I probably do have some kind of subliminally operating techniques that help me cope with the fact that for some people, this is their everyday reality. And probably there do exist equally automatic self-calm techniques that we use to cope with the continuous informational stream blaring about the upcoming global apocalypse and various lesser or local woes. Although most likely there are different schools of practice among those too.  

Dénes Farkas’s personal exhibition How-to-calm-yourself-after-seeing-a-dead-body Techniques focuses on our everyday uncertainty, insecurity, practices of adaptation and techniques of keeping up normalcy. Whereas his former photographic and installation works have often dealt with society’s structural violence, modelling the relationships of an individual and the society on a very abstract level, and creating hermetic, utterly controlled environments, then the present exhibition is a step outside of the world of models. Focusing on a much more detailed level works as a reality check of the attitudes of before – the abstract machine called society is made up of real institutions and kept going by real people.  

The visual material has been photographed in three locations: at the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway; at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) seed bank in Terbol, Lebanon; and at the N.I.Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources in St Petersburg, Russia – institutions dedicated to preserving biodiversity and guaranteeing global food security. Nikolai Vavilov may be called the founder of modern seed banking – his 115 expeditions for studying variability of global crops in Eurasia, Africa, and North and South America helped establish not only the first seed bank of such a scale but also posit an innovative theory of centres of origin where concurrence of natural conditions and human activities have resulted in remarkably broad biological diversity; Vavilov also stressed the crucial role of biodiversity in looking for solutions for crop diseases, crop failure, and other problems of food security.[2]  The Vavilov Institute of today is the same building where during the Siege of Leningrad, his colleagues barricaded themselves in with the collection of nearly 370,000 seeds, a number of them dying in there in the course of the 872-day event. By the time, Vavilov himself had, unbeknownst to his colleagues, received charges in pursuing pseudoscience by Stalin, had been deported to Saratov, and died in a prison there. He was posthumously rehabilitated in the 1960s – at around the same time when the Joint Meeting on Plant Exploration and Conservation of the United Nations and the International Biological Programme was declaring seed banking the most urgent single measure at the time to ensure genetic conservation.[3]  Although the green revolution of the 1960s, fuelled by extensive industrialised agriculture, resulted in tripling of world crop productivity it also meant a strong universalist tendency – of more than 7000 crop varieties used over the course of history, only a fraction continued to be cultivated. In addition, legal regulations of most of the Western world favour cultivating patented varieties resulting in less biodiversity, more vulnerability for crop development in the long run, and significantly restricted opportunities for local small farmers, resulting in a number of protests and a call to regard genetic pool of crops something like an open-access code. With such processes underway, a discussion concerning the necessity of a global seed depository commenced in the end of the 1980s, resulting in the opening of the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway in 2008. This archive, also nicknamed the doomsday vault, consists of a tunnel dug deep underneath permafrost, as safe as possible from any human or natural forces, and vaults with the temperature of -18°C. The vault will maintain copies of seeds from up to 1750 local genetic archives of the world, and is capable of housing up to 4.5 million seed samples.[4]  The deposited samples will remain property of the depositor who will also be the only one eligible to withdraw them. The first occasion of withdrawal came sooner than expected – the conflict in Syria rendered unaccessible the headquarters and seed bank of International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, and a new station and seed bank was established in Terbol, Lebanon instead. The first rescue operation of this Noah’s ship of Svalbard thus did not result from a natural catastrophe but a human disaster.  

Noah, however, was a son of a bitch of a captain who ran a very tight ship. Only pairs of the best and the brightest were allowed to climb the plank—perpetuate the species, repopulate the planet, and all that Nazi nonsense.

Would Noah have allowed a lesbian zebra aboard, an unmarrie  hedgehog, a limping lemur? Methinks not. 

Whereas local seed banks usually also act as research institutions, with   ICARDA actively contributing to post-conflict recultivation in various parts of the Middle East, then Svalbard may also be read as an instance of self-calming technique on a social scale. With the aim of guaranteeing biodiversity and continuation of life in the case of all kinds of dark and darker future scenarios, the Global Seed Vault is an institution of our era par excellance. Proudly manifesting international cooperation, this maximum-security establishment does not really answer for the quality of its content – it does not open the deposited packages nor research their content any more thoroughly than a brief scan. Its ambition of comprehensiveness reflects the archive fever of our era – to substitute real diversity with a reassuring illusion of an exhaustive collection of perfectly organized information. Its operation protocols are in tune with the society that is ceaselessly preparing itself for something, penetrated by a dispersed, or rather multifocal, sense of imminent danger generating a preapocalyptic anxiety that has actually become an evident part of the new normalcy. This sense of an imminent global catastrophe has been termed a pre-traumatic stress disorder[5] or anthropocenophobia[6] – a conception of a unique epoch one the one hand suffocated by anticipation of a cataclysm in one way or another caused by human action, and on the other hand characterised by confidence that it is primarily a question of inventing adequate scientific-technical means to counteract the impending troubles and an obligation of humans to internvene into global and natural processes. Even the architecture of the Seed Vault stems from such disposition – its rigid and stately geometric volume stands in a dramatic contrast with the grand landscape of Svalbard, the heroic purpose of the building further accentuated by a piece of public art in the form of a light-reflecting panel on the façade. The contrast with pragmatic architecture at ICARDA could not be bigger.  

This kind of institutional care may be quite effective as a self-calming technique but such endeavours also legitimate choices and establish values and concepts of normalcy and truth. Undisputed, neutral and rigid scientific rationale is really made up by people with their subjectivities, choices and actions. At the current exhibition, Dénes Farkas juxtaposes the visual material photographed in such institutions with fragments of internal monologue by the protagonist of Alameddine’s novel. This entails a momentous perspective shift – the global and the rational clashes with the subjective; the rhetoric of preparedness for an unknown future is forced to encounter the commonplace of horrors of a real conflict. Normalcy emerges as relative and contingent. The conflicts and catastrophes have nothing extraordinary in them but are rather depressingly mundane, the tragedies random, the human aspiration a fate’s chew toy.    

I wake up every morning not knowing whether I’ll be able to switch on the lights. When my toilet broke down last year, I had to set up three appointments with three plumbers because the first two didn’t show and the third appeared four hours late. Rarely can I walk the same path from point A to point B, say from apartment to supermarket, for more than a month. I constantly have to adjust my walking maps; any of a multitude of minor politicians will block off entire neighborhoods because one day they decide they’re important enough to feel threatened. Life in Beirut is much too random. I can’t force myself to believe I’m in charge of much of my life. Does reliability reinforce your illusion of control?  

[1]This and the following quotes: Rabih Alameddine. An Unnecessary Woman. New York: Grove Press, 2014.

[2]Gary Paul Nabhan.Where Our Food Comes From. Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine. Washington: Island Press, 2009.

[3]Sara Peres. Saving the gene pool for the future: Seed banks as archives. – Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 5 (2016), 100.

[4]Pål Hermansen. Seeds for the World. Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Kom Forlag, 2013.

[5]See https://bureauoflinguisticalreality.com/portfolio/pre-traumatic-stress-disorder-2/

[6]Renata Tyszczuk. Anthropocenophobia: The Stone Falls on the City. – Harvard Design Magazine 42 (2016).

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