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Gaetano Pesce in 1972, 2013 and 3000


Plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation […] it is less a thing than a trace of movement.

Roland Barthes, “Plastics”, Mythologies, 1957


3000

In year AD 3000 a team of archeologists made a strange discovery in the northern part of Italy. In an underground cave the team discovered a construction from ancient times: a rather small, enclosed habitat—a dwelling unit casted in rigid brown plastic, in polyurethane. There was no trace of construction, the exterior and interior, and also the furniture was made out of the same plastic material, hence the dwelling seemed to be molded in one single casting process. The team of archeologists were led by designer Gaetano Pesce who also formulated the main hypothesis of the extraordinary archeological discovery: this was a shelter for survival designed to protect human beings from some major cataclysm. An analysis of the synthetic material dated the structure somewhere around the year AD 2000 and there was further analysis showing that the underground cave in which the habitat was found had prior to the year 2000 contained the substance oil, but for some unknown reason the oil had disappeared around the end of the 20th century. The investigation of the site led Pesce to a speculative conclusion consisting of various hypotheses for the reasons why humans had to escape the surface of the earth and withdraw into plastic bunkers. Some of his suggestions were: “incomparability between the human environment and the atmosphere”, “need for isolation”, “non-communication as a characteristic of life”, “concept of productivity replaced by a need for transcendental symbols”, “decline of the technological dream” or “insecurity as the prospect of the future.” When the plastic structure was fully excavated, it was transported to New York and displayed to the American public in the 1972 MoMA exhibition on Italian design: Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.


In Pesce’s work, something has happened with time. It is not an ongoing continuity, but constituted by breaks and resistance. The plastic bunker entails many different times, most notably a world after destruction. The world outside is broken, but somehow a plastic structure constituted human being’s survival. Why plastic? This blog post is about plastics, plasticity, and the Anthropocene discussed through the work “The Period of the Great Contaminations” by Gaetano Pesce from 1972. Philosopher Catherine Malabou’s writings on the new developments regarding the concept of plasticity in neuroscience will reveal a rather overlooked aspect of the properties of plastics. As such, I will suggest a re-reading of plastics, an insight which will inform the argument that the “Period of the Great Contaminations”, that is, the Anthropocene is a new time.


Plastic

In his classic essay on plastics, Barthes reflects on the properties of the material which he defines as belonging somewhere in between the sphere of half-gods and of half-robots. Made by machines, plastic magically transmutes matter without the physical presence of humans. Since it can be made into almost anything, is it really anything at all? Plastic, argues Bathers, destabilizes old categories, and since it can substitute almost anything it cannot really exist as a substance. Barthes labels its production process a magical operation par excellence: a transmutation of matter. “It is less a thing than a trace of movement”[1] writes Barthes , and with this statement he extracts the notion of an essence from the material. He continues: “… the movement here is almost infinite. [Plastic] hardly exist as substance.”[2] In his optimistic writing he defines plastics as the wonders of tomorrow. He understands it as something in flux—always moving—something that never really stabilizes, even in its finished molded form it is still governed by its infinite transformation. By not designating this movement, trace or the infinity found in the properties of plastic to any sort of direction, or to any particular point in the production process of the synthetic material, Barthes thus rejects both resistance and the concept of irreversibility.

In the recent interdisciplinary investigation of plastic, Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic, edited by Jennifer Gabrys, Guy Hawkins and Mike Michael, there is a continuation of Barthes understanding of plastics as material continuity in many of the chapters. “Plastics epitomize the ephemeral, the ever changing”[3] writes Bernadette Bensaude Vincent. This understanding of plastic is echoed by the theoretical approaches throughout the book. The authors refer to theories of becoming: Whitehead, Deleuze, and the more recent Jane Bennet and Karen Barad. As such, there is coherence between the material properties of plastic and a specific understanding of the world, constituted by the notion of “performativity.” As stated in the introduction of Accumulation: “What emerges through these empirical object studies is how plasticity provides particular ways of thinking about and advancing understandings of materiality as process.”[4]

Returning again to Barthes, it becomes clear that he considers plastic as a symptom of a social structure—he connects the properties of the material with a mode of thinking found in the modern period—both defined by the notion of infinite transformation. Plastic is the material symptom of our times, it epitomizes us—it is what we are. Barthes ends his classic essay with referring to scientific advances in natural sciences where plastic aortas can be implanted in our hearts; so, life itself can be plasticized.[5] If we continue where Barthes ends his essay, on the path of natural sciences, it becomes evident that there was an important aspect of the material properties of plastics that his analysis did not discuss.


Plasticity

The word “plasticity” is a frequently used term in studies of plastic. In design history the concept is often used to describe the twofold act of both receiving and giving form. As Catherine Malabou remarks: “In science, medicine, art, and education, the connotations to the term “plasticity” are always positive”.[6] In the previously mentioned book Accumulation, the concept of “plasticity” is understood and utilized as flexibility, exemplified here with the words of Mike Michael: “’Plasticity’ signifies the multiplicity of goods and functions that a single material […] can yield.”[7] The magical qualities of plastic (which Barthes emphasized), however, conceal the destructive side of the material. The flexible, infinite movement is only the positive feature of the substance. But like in “plasticity”, there is also a destructive part.

In her essay “Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity” philosopher Catherine Malabou uses new advances in neuroscience to argue that an accident (a trauma, incident or event) will make irreversible changes in the brain. When you grow old, for instance, the brain is different from when you are young. When we start to think about something in a different way, or learn a new skill—like playing the piano—the brain is so flexible that this new experience will physically change the brain. It will change who we are. However, when something new is formed, something else gets lost. The brain does not operate in a state of becoming. We are constituted by existential breaks. Malabou labels this destructive plasticity. Plasticity as a concept indeed entails a flexible formation of something, but the formation is always on behalf of something else that can never again come back. Plasticity is, as Malabou writes: “the production of another existence unrelated to the previous existence”.[8] Accidents, (of whatever kind) will lead to irreversible changes in the subject, and it will never return to the original state. Summed up with Malabou’s words: “The subject no longer moves in the direction of becoming, […] the subject finds herself at the end, as if emerging from her accidents, from her own destruction.”[9]

Plastic entails the same properties as the concept of plasticity. Synthetic materials are governed by irreversibility: put briefly, plastics are made by various chemical components (depending on the type of plastic), but they have in common that they change into something else once unified. Plastic follow the model A+B=C, when A and B synthesize they form something new—C—which can never again become neither A or B. By contrast, in organic materials, for instance bronze, there is a possibility to extract the copper also after the bronze is produced. This is not the case with synthetic materials. The same goes for plastics as for plasticity: it is flexible, but also irreversible—and it is governed by resistance and breaks. Summed up with Malabou’s words: “Plastic, if you look in the dictionary, means the quality of a matter, which is at the same time fluid but also resisting. Once formed, it cannot go back to its previous state.”[10]Embedded in plastics, then, is also the limit and an end.


2013

Returning to Gaetano Pesce, humans had to withdraw from the surface of the earth by the year 2000. But both in 1972 and in 3000 Pesce didn’t know the reason why, and his hypothesis was only speculation. However, in 2013 Pesce made a highly interesting and complex remark that confirmed that in “The Period of the Great Contaminations” time was not an ongoing continuity. It is flexible—but also governed by breaks. Pesce confirmed this in a talk, recorded on video, with Peter Lang at The Architecture Foundation in 2013:


“When I presented this project, I presented it as an archaeologist. Not as a designer, not as an architect. I am an archaeologist from the year 3000 discovering in north of Italy, underground, in a huge cavern, an empty cavern. Supposedly from oil. This cavern is empty. Three years later in Europe, there was the crisis of oil. […] I said ‘people had decided to go and live inside earth.’ Why? Maybe because outside [it] is impossible to breath. Interesting, later, it came out, the story of the pollution—it was interesting. Because with a project you are able to evoke a situation that was coming two or three years later.”[11]


Humans had to withdraw from the surface of the earth, and isolate themselves in the plastic bunker because we had destroyed our ultimate environment—planet earth. At a first glance, this statement might not seem very controversial. Pesce is saying that pollution was not one of his 1972-situations for why people needed to withdraw from the surface of the earth. In 1972 he had suggested that one of the possible situations was an “incompatibility between human environment and the atmosphere.” However, the crisis of oil emerged, and the story of pollution became more pervasive, and the work itself came to display its own intentions. “The Period of the Great Contamination” evoked the period of the great contaminations. Pesce shows how both causality and time is not in a state of becoming. The plastic bunker exists in 1972, 2000, 2013, and 3000, but still, once the plastic bunker was formed—it could never go back. The trauma or catastrophe of the period of the great contaminations revealed that time changed. And like Pesce explained in 2013, the work both evoked, and emerged from, the destructive plasticity of time. I would claim that what Pesce displayed in his work was the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is, drawing on the words of Malabou, “an existential break—not a continuity.”[12] Once formed it cannot go back. Echoing Malabou: in the Anthropocene we no longer move in the direction of becoming, “the subject finds herself at the end, as if emerging from her accidents, from her own destruction.”[13] The Anthropocene emerged out of our own destruction. And the destruction created something new, hence, the Anthropocene created a break in time. With his design project, Pesce showed that in the “Period of the Great Contaminations” time works in a different way than before. It has the same properties as both plastic and plasticity: in the same time it is both 1) (with the works of Barthes) flexible, in motion, and defined by infinite transformation and 2) resistant and contributed by breaks. There was a break in time, perhaps also an existential one, when we entered the Anthropocene. Time is no longer the ongoing continuity it perhaps was before, the destruction caused a break. It became plastic.

Barthes considered plastic as a symptom of a societal structure. In accordance with Barthes I would argue that plastic is a symptom of our time. So in the end, Barthes was right. The whole world can be plasticized—even life itself.

  1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Mythologies (London: Paladin, 1973), 97

  2. Ibid. 97-98

  3. Bernadette Bensaude Vincent, “Plastics, Materials and Dreams of Dematerialization,” in J. Gabrys, G. Hawkins, and M. Michael, Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic (Oxon: Taylor & Francis, 2013), 23

  4. “Introduction: From materiality to plasticity” in ibid., 3

  5. Barthes, Mythologies, 99

  6. Catherine Malabou, Ontology of the Accident : An Essay on Destructive Plasticity, Ontologie De L’accident (Cambridge: Polity, 2012), 3

  7. Mike Michael, “Prosess and Plasticity: Printing, prototyping and the prospects of plastic” in Gabrys, Hawkins, and Michael, 33

  8. Malabou, 37

  9. Ibid., 63

  10. Catherine Malabou and Noelle Vahanian, “A Conversation with Catherine Malabou,” Journal For Cultural And Religious Theory 9, no. 1 (2008)

  11. Gaetano Pesce in conversation with Peter Lang. “Architecture on Film: Italy - The New Domestic Landscape, MoMA, 1972”. The Architecture Foundation 28.11.2013

  12. Malabou, 42

  13. Ibid., 63

 

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