Americium 241

We have just moved house, and in the early hours of the morning, an alarm that we don’t know we have goes off. We both jump up from our sleep, raw and unmade. My body has not yet found its habitual lines through the new flat; it has no muscle memory for this scenario.

So I flail in the dark, thoughts clattering, failing to figure the screaming bleeps poking at my brain. I’m helpless, lost in panic and distraction; like when a tickle, too long, turns nasty.

We switch the bedroom light on, and are still squinting and reaching for clothes when the noise stops of its own accord. In the silence that follows, an echo of affect ricochets through my body – a feeling of sharp surprise on perpetual repeat. This gradually settles into a disproportionate amount of self-pity.

We discover a smoke detector outside our bedroom, but there are no little flashes; nothing untoward. We have been acted upon by a weird disturbance, but can take no affirmative action of our own. We return to bed, still sensitive to the rude shock of it all.

We don’t know if we need to worry about the alarm going off, so we google our concerns. While scanning my search results, I learn that smoke detectors produce radioactive ions. The innocuous plastic disc on the ceiling immediately acquires an aura. Not because it is unique, but because it harbours nuclear decay – a notion I cannot really understand. The detector, as a silent object, is now much more shrill than the noise it makes. It is volatile, a thing in progress. A terrible event unfolding, a microcosm of the toxic sublime. This revelation, in concert with my neurosis, charges the detector with a performative suspense.

I go on to read that an ionising smoke alarm is no more radioactive than the potassium in a bunch of bananas. And I tend not to worry about bananas. So I settle down and go back to sleep.

 

But what about the tape, David?

…we look through objects (to see what they disclose…) … A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window.[1]

A young and spindly David Attenborough is attempting to piece together the broken fragments of a giant egg he has found in the desert sands of Madagascar. The egg belongs to the Elephant Bird – an enormous ratite, extinct since the seventeenth century. Attenborough introduces each shell fragment to the next, in search of tessellating edges. A single camera shot dwells on his hands long enough for us to see his thinking in real time. Attenborough carefully assembles the eggshell using white masking tape. The pitted fragments in his lap look like sections of a human skull.

The camera moves to a close-up of Attenborough’s face. A tent canvas behind him catches some leafy shadows moving in the light breeze. The spiky silhouettes dance a duet with Attenborough’s jaunty mop of hair. It is a beautiful shot – a loving, lingering gaze that escapes the documentary conceit. This image augments the return of the wide-angle view. The picturesque scene in the background – two men and some cattle sitting in the shade of a tree – now reads as a highly choreographed tableau.

A perfect Euclidean egg can be drawn using four intersecting circles. A three dimensional version of this is more complicated. A sphere can be vertically sunk part way into a larger one, but this results in a lateral pinch around the point of contact; a cone-shaped convex collar is needed to traverse the join.

Attenborough’s egg has no underlying armature; the tape allows it to extend in irregular steps along its own surface without a centralised system of support. Each edge demands a new length of ripped tape. These strips combine to draft a set of geometric shapes wrapped around the ovaline form. As the tape holds the fragments, so too do the fragments hold the tape. Two eggs now occupy the same space – the reassembled shell, and a more speculative three-dimensional tape drawing.

Attenborough does not dwell on the complexity of this composite egg he has made. He looks through the tape and the cracks in order to behold the egg as a coherent, reconstituted form. Clutching it like a wigged out crystal ball, he gazes out over the parched riverbed and sees a swampy flood plain, populated by giant, flightless birds.

Freud playfully invites us to imagine a “psychical”[2] Rome in which we might simultaneously perceive all the temples, palaces and battlements that have constituted the city throughout history. A mere squint – a detuning of the eye – would allow us to scan through time, observing all the various architectural forms that have occupied a single location.

Attenborough is less ambitious in his temporal reach, but he still uses the egg to invoke a system of flora and fauna long since expunged from the landscape before him. But what about the tape, David? By looking through the egg towards received natural histories, Attenborough is blind to the wonky asymbolia of his own invention. He denies himself an encounter with a more opaque and curious thing – a putative egg – that complicates its own disclosures.

But what if we were to have a go at Attenborough’s game? We might summon, through his strange egg, our own suppositional fiction – a giant bird held together by human ideas.

 

Pretend to be reading

Bring your awareness to the surface of the paper. Without moving, survey the information you are receiving through your fingertips.

You are not trying to understand the text at this point. If you notice yourself starting to process words, just acknowledge as much with friendly curiosity, then return your attention to your fingers – to the point of contact with the paper.

Try to maintain this position for five minutes. If you feel self-conscious, you can pretend to be reading. No one will know any different. Expand your awareness to other people in the space doing the same thing as you. Again, without moving, project a smile in their direction. Share a moment of recognition with them. Whenever you feel ready, put the text down and continue with the exhibition.

 

 

[1] Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, in: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001) p. 4

[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, in: Albert Dickson (ed.), Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 12, Civilisation, Society and Religion (London: Penguin Books, 1991) p. 257