Leisure Pit / Hyperobjects: Nicolas Lobo and Timothy Morton
While his site-specific exhibition encompasses thematic leanings not necessarily defined by ecology, or only loosely tied to it—including patterns of human consumption, systems of production, and the leisure industry dichotomy—when I asked him who he might like to have a conversation with about his practice, he immediately mentioned Timothy Morton and his work at the intersection of object-oriented ontology and ecology, and particularly the influence his most recent book, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013), has had on him.
Morton’s term hyperobject seems to encompass definitions as far-flung and vast as the entities it describes. Broadly, these are things so massively widespread across continuums of time and space that they elude our imaginations. They are at once “viscous”—they “stick” to beings that encounter them (global warming “burns the skin” on the back of Morton’s neck daily)—and “nonlocal,” so that any perceivable manifestation of a hyperobject shouldn’t be mistaken for the thing itself. Due to their expansive occupation of time relative to our own, they may be among us and at the same time invisible to us. Examples include very large entities, such as planets; or the long-lasting product of a specific ecosystem, like the Florida Everglades; or a plastic bag, the lifespan of which far outstretches that of its makers. A layman’s description that is relevant to Morton’s conceptual crossover with Lobo’s The Leisure Pit can be found in an essay from 2011, which precedes his eponymous book:
Imagine you have spent your whole life in a swimming pool. You have no idea that you are living in a swimming pool, but you see the rippling shadows and reflections. Then one day, the water in your pool starts to feel different. Something has changed, maybe the temperature or the composition of the chemicals in the water. Slowly you begin to realize that the water you have been ignoring exists all around you. You are surrounded by a hyperobject. 1
Despite its subtitle, the book’s index includes twenty-six page references under the subheading “future.” Within the theoretical framework surrounding the hyperobject, Morton describes a new way of understanding ecology, ethics, art, humanity, and yes, the future, in a world that exists “after the end” (which is already now). We’ve reached the end of the world inasmuch as the term world itself has shifted in meaning. He argues that, like the inhabitant of the swimming pool who didn’t know he was surrounded by water until he later felt its warmth, we are now realizing that what we once thought of as the world is in fact an “aesthetic effect.” Because we have previously set up false boundaries between ourselves and “the world” or between ourselves and “nature,” those lines are now blurring. What could once have been a casual conversation about the weather, for example, now invokes a much larger entity—climate, or climate change—to which we’re all “stuck.” In this equation, there’s no separation between us and the world and, as such, there’s no truth to the concept of “away.” Displacing pollution or flushing waste through septic systems doesn’t do anything but sweep these elements under the rug.
In Lobo’s development of the works on view in The Leisure Pit, he considered these concepts and the refiguring of how we understand civic infrastructure, particularly Miami’s—storm sewer drain components played a role—the luxury economy of leisure, and the effects of modern-scale consumption. He and Morton spoke about their respective practices in January.
NICOLAS LOBO: Hyperobjects was kind of the right book at the right time for me because I’m doing this work with concrete.
TIMOTHY MORTON: Concrete—that’s an interesting thing, because a friend of mine—he’s a geologist, a member of the Royal Geological Society of London—describes a common consensus at this point that, basically, several thousands of years from now, there will be loads of new minerals in the world that are created by humans and many of them will consist of concrete.
LOBO: That’s interesting.
MORTON: It’s interesting to think about that in a hyperobject way. It’s not going to be just the concrete blocks that we use to make buildings and can point to, pull out, and mix. That’s actually going to merge at some point with other stuff, like it’s all mashed into, I don’t know—
LOBO: Like a kind of terrazzo.
LOBO: This touches on the idea of the Anthropocene Period that you write about in the book.
MORTON: Exactly. It’s very uncanny, the fact that we’re living in a geological periodthat we can actually gauge because we started shoveling coal into steam engines in 1784. That’s the year the steam engine was patented, so it’s really uncanny because we normally think of geological time in terms of millions, if not billions, of years.
LOBO: It’s this kind of hyperacceleration that’s happened. This idea of, what was the phrase that you used—the Age of Asymmetry.
LOBO: You wrote about this action of attunement to certain—is it frequencies, or wavelengths?
MORTON: No, more generally, attunements can mean allowing things that aren’t me to tell me about themselves, rather than me encroaching my content onto them. So you could attune to a Coke bottle—it doesn’t have to be an electromagnetic wave. But the whole Age of Asymmetry has decided that we have, at this point, enormous amounts of knowledge. And precisely to that extent, these entities that we can find, including a Coke bottle or things like global warming, can become very deep and mysterious. Sort of a weird asymmetry between these two things—as big as we think we get, stuff that isn’t us also gets bigger.
LOBO: And by asymmetry, do you mean there’s one side that’s larger than the other, or could they be equal?
MORTON: It’s more like both are expanding and there’s no easy harmony between them, because the more we know or the more data we get, the more mysterious things get. It’s not the case that we have more and more of a grip on things, it’s actually that we’re realizing more and more that things intrinsically, irreducibly kind of elude our grip. So the more knowledge we have, the less certain we are about things and that’s where the asymmetry lies.
LOBO: Do you think this outlook has something to do with a hallucinatory mind state, in any way? You talk about the demon. . .
MORTON: It has to do with paranoia, and paranoia can create a very altered state of consciousness, yeah? But I think paranoia is something that befalls the condition of being a person. Being a person means being paranoid that I might not be a person, you know? So for 12,000 years, roughly, people who define themselves as Western—especially Neolithic people—have been trying to put a lid on this paranoia. It’s perfectly natural in indigenous cultures to have a logical uncertainty as to the job of being, right? Like, is this bunny rabbit real, or is it actually a demon in disguise, or maybe just its left ear is a demon in disguise, or maybe there’s a little bit of hair on the rabbit and that’s actually a gate to another dimension, and does anybody really know? We’ve been trying to lock that down for about 12,000 years, so we think of it very negatively and not playfully. We think that paranoia is a bad thing. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with hallucination in particular, although, there is a line of thinking that suggests that thought, in the end, comes from the fact that we evolved with psychedelic plants, that hallucinations that happened gave rise to what we now call thinking. I don’t know if you agree with that, but I think it’s pretty interesting.
LOBO: So, it’s time to open up to the paranoia a little bit?
MORTON: I think so. I think ecological awareness is paranoia, isn’t it? Suddenly you realize that the world you thought to be your world isn’t actually your world, exactly. There’s a kind of shock you experience about that, and then perhaps further into it there’s some kind of sadness. But eventually, I think there’s some kind of laughter—we’re not there yet, but inside the sadness there can be some kind of joy.
LOBO: This makes me think of this painting—a landscape painting from the 1700s of cotton mills at night. So there’s this idea that the beginning of the industrial era came with widespread artificial light. I can’t help but think of paranoia as being related to this need to light the night.
MORTON: Sure, we’re trying to eliminate contradiction, and so one analogy for that would be to stop things from flickering. If you turn the lights up high enough, they stop flickering. But in the shadowy world, things are flickering and uncertain and we sort of delete that. I think mostly that’s an intrinsic property of being a thing, it has this sort of wavering, flickering quality. In the end, trying to delete that involves violence. You can’t really do it, so you have to get a bit violent. And that creates what you could call autoimmune issues, or a feedback loop. Like when you start washing your hands with antibacterial soap, all sorts of bacteria start to evolve and then you have a worse problem than the one you started out with. That’s basically the story of the last 12,000 years. We’ve tried to avoid global warming and in doing so we’ve created even worse global warming. It’s like the plot of every tragedy, right?
LOBO: Yeah, and by trying to eliminate the flickering we create this other illusion or this false situation and fake sense of reality. By trying to eliminate the illusion we’ve created infinite other ones.
MORTON: Yes, right. They’re illusions pretending not to be illusions. The other ones are sort of straightforward illusions, but these we kind of half know that they’re illusions already, so we take them more seriously.
LOBO: And when you say violence, you mean in a kind of a divisive sense?
MORTON: I mean any kind of violence, physical or ontological or social. It has to do with actually creating a boundary where there isn’t one and then having to police it. For example, you create a boundary between things, even in social space, like the boundary between your house and what you might designate as “nature” and might see as wonderful, or potentially as hostile, but in any case separated from you by some sort of boundary. This isn’t correct, so the very act of creating the boundary starts various feedback loops occurring and eventually you end up with things flooding through the boundary because the boundary doesn’t really exist.
LOBO: Another idea I’ve been tossing around while working on this show is this creeping understanding that the city of Miami has an expiration date that is pretty much incontrovertible. We are going to be without a city within the next one hundred years or so.
LOBO: I think that it’s a very interesting condition and we’ve only been here for barely one hundred years so far, so from the very beginning there’s this idea of an ending, right?
LOBO: And then I try to understand and interpret the different kinds of civic projects that happen here, but they seem to be completely violent and sociopathic for the most part. But then, all of a sudden, when you understand that in one hundred years there’s not going to even be a city, they start to make a little more sense.
MORTON: Yes, finitude is what we’re talking about. And it’s interesting to think about these really, really huge things that you now realize are actually finite in some way. I don’t know about Miami in particular, but some of the bigger megacities are actually less than their components, which is why they’re quite difficult to locate, because they actually kind of collapse inside their components rather than transcend them.
LOBO: Do they collapse because they’re ever spiraling outward?
MORTON: It’s that they’re ontologically less than the sum of their parts. Like in the American tax code, if you’re married, you’re treated as one and a half people rather than two people, and in a way that makes perfect sense somehow—when two beings are connected, there is actually less of them. It’s the same with a megacity, you know, they’re less than the sum of their parts, so it’s really hard if we don’t have the language yet to describe them, but I think something like hyperobject is a good start.
1 Timothy Morton, “Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects,” GAM Architecture Magazine 7 (May 2011): 82 (English and German).