Blogging from the Edge

signals, reports, and creative responses



This field note was filed for the Testing Ground project.

Question #3: What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we design artworks or informational media in ways that fuse aesthetic experience and new knowledge?

Over and over during the short time of the past week, we have experienced the contemporary time of our field trip put into the context of deep, geologic time. (The term “deep time” was coined by geologist John McPhee to refer to events that function on a geologic timeframe--as in, millennia--rather than on a human timeframe). We've been pushed to sense this very moment in relation to the millennia that predate human presence by discussions of the half-life of radioactivity in the Nevada Test Site, and today's encounters with Joshua Trees that have been on the Planet for over 13,000 years and rock formations that date to 1.7 billion years ago.

There is a growing awareness of how humans are shaping and creating within decades what previously changed naturally over millennia (melting glaciers and changing weather patterns) or didn't exist all, but will now outlast the planet (growing stockpiles of nuclear waste and plastic accumulation in the oceans). Finding ways to visualize this awareness is crucial for media and graphic designers who want to create effective forms visual rhetoric for environmentalism.

In her 2005 Masters Thesis, "Designing for Deep Time: How Art History is Used to Mark Nuclear Waste," Kelli Anderson (School of Art and Design, Pratt Institute) did "a case-study of the very unique, interdisciplinary design process that occurred in November of 1991, when a panel of experts met to discuss strategies for visually marking nuclear waste (p. 8)."

The experts were asked to design a warning for humans 10,000 years into the future--the length of time that the buried waste is dangerous. Future humans who might intentionally or accidentally try to dig up buried nuclear waste need some kind of warning sign that will be readable and effective 10,000 years from now. As Anderson put it: the "Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required by law that the DOE (Department of Energy) must implement markers for the site, clearly warning against the danger resting underfoot. These markers must remain for the entire period the waste is hazardous, meaning that the markers will need to be understood by people 10,000 years from now — until the unlikely-sounding year 11,996 AD. Based on the hope that our age of information can leave more than a threat to future generations, the DOE has culled together panels of experts to determine how to create a long-lasting nonverbal warning system . . . In 1983, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) . . . requir[ed] “permanent warning markers” above all nuclear waste repositories. The DOE responded by establishing the Human Interference Task Force (HITF) to produce individual reports on communication, which could be used to inform the design of a message
system" (p. 3).

". . . From the outset . . . one thing was clear: language was not going to be very
helpful here. Language, which is highly sensitive to political and cultural shifts, tends to deteriorate quickly. In fact, linguists have found that languages “decay” as quickly as 12% every century — meaning that after 10,000 years, or 100 centuries, we can expect that our current world languages may have decayed by as much as 1200%" (p. 3).

View example of designs that have been created to warn about nuclear waste storage for future generations (from Designing for Deep Time: How Art History is Used to Mark Nuclear Waste," by Kelli Anderson):

click any image to enlarge

How might you use media and graphic design to put the human timeframe in relation to the geologic timeframe?

For inspiration, listen to "Warning Signs," Studio 360's story about the accumulation of radioactive waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain storage site. It describes how engineers approach the design of warning signs. Produced by Sarah Lilley.


anniesays.... said...

“Future humans who might intentionally or accidentally try to dig up buried nuclear waste need some kind of warning sign that will be readable and effective 10,000 years from now.... How might you use media and graphic design to put the human time frame in relation to the geologic time frame?”

check this out:
“Describing preliminary concepts for permanent warning monuments or markers on the mountain’s surface will be part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The NRC requires that the monuments or markers “accurately identify the location of the repository, be designed to be as permanent as practicable and convey a warning against intrusion into the underground repository, because of risk to public health and safety from radioactive wastes.”

ryanriegner said...

As our rapid development with society increases towards the heavens, so does our impact on our planet and our responsibility to govern our influences on it. Simultaneously, as our capabilities and the seemingly limitless humanistic skyscraper of knowledge keeps building floors upon itself, the rest of the world is seeming to slip away. Simply put, the planet cannot keep up the extreme balance in which it strives to obtain in cohesion with the traditional human standard of living. We are the most intelligent beings on this planet. We are capable of recognizing right from wrong, from learning from our mistakes, even to govern for the better the collective life and condition of our planet. Yet in light of our understanding of this great responsibility, as a collective whole we seem to be caught up in quick fix solutions that look nice and shiny from the outside, but could have dire short term consequences.

I started doing some research on extreme environmental impacts that humanity has recently been having on our environment with negative consequences. Of all the links and topics I’ve visited the world clock link has been the most impacting.

In light of this seemingly bleak future, programs like testing ground and other instances in where designers and activists are starting to take charge is happening more and more, which gives these kinda of programs a value that really can’t be gauged or weighed. They are priceless and persistence and implementation will give these projects and new ideas their “purpose” if you will. I guess it’s just hard for me to see a handful of environmentalists and innovative bio-designers dominating over a world that has grown accustomed to the quick, the easy, and the most profitable.

nayaurena said...

When considering the fact that language in 10,000 years may not even exist, it is difficult to come up with a solution to prevent a really big problem from happening in the future. Even if there was some amazingly designed sign that could be understood now till the end of time, it is unlikely that it will be respected. Human curiosity will be the end of human existence. There has not been and will not exist a rule that humans will not break even if they know the magnitude of the consequence or not, there will always be someone who will think they know better and that they can fix it themselves. This is not to say that this is a bad trait, or at least not entirely. We would not be who we are today and accomplish all that we have without that drive.

I think it is our responsibility to provide a warning to the future of the damage we have caused and try to prevent it from affecting them in the way that it can. Looking at some of the drawings posted, I think the simpler the diagram the easier it would be to understand. The drawings of the spikes might not really translate as well. Perhaps in the future instead of spikes seeming dangerous it will merely resemble a building or monument. I thought that the best and easiest to comprehend was Kaplan’s diagram. It reminds me of the ancient Egyptian temples. The illustrations are pretty clear and straight forward, or at least it is at the present moment.

Michelle said...

The future sounds like an awful place. No language, no fossil fuels, probably no more animals, or water, or forests either. Are we absolutely sure we should be trying to preserve this planet if it is going to suck so much in a few hundred years or less? Maybe we would be better off organizing mass suicide, or starting to colonize other planets. You know, start fresh? Everything I'm hearing about nuclear waste, global warming, and the overall destruction of everything good on this stupid planet is so bleak that I just want to quit! Leave and never come back. Put me on the next flight to Planet-X, and don't bother to keep in touch.

Lena Huang said...

I dont really know much what is being done now with the problem of nuclear waste being buried but I feel like this design of warning everyone in the future doesn't make sense. Its like saying we'll procrastinate and wait till it becomes a severe damaging problem, then we'll do something about it. If they know it can cause problems and dangerous in the future if someone digs up nuclear waste, why dont they find another safe way of disposing nuclear waste?

Anonymous said...

I first have to start out being the skeptic.
The examples involving spikes are useless, given that humans have ALWAYS found ways to get past the traps and warnings of previous societies (such as Egyptian tomb traps, or Indiana Jones' famous avoidance thereof to get to the goods, whatever they might be).
The pictograph is almost incomprehensible. Who knows what interpretations would be made from it?
The black hole is probably the most feasible of the sites, but I feel a few points are essential to understanding this project. One, the huge draw from the sun would make not only the black square very hot, but also the surrounding area: above, below, on the sides, and 10,000 metes underground. Head can radiate through the ground, unfortunately, and I don't think the waste would be able to have such constant warmth on it from this giant piece of tar. And who's to say that the future humans won't excavate it as well, as we have all other monuments and burial structures?

I've attempted to poke holes in the physical manifestations of these media but that does not mean that I think there should not be a means to explain the sites. Unless our entire civilization is destroyed SOMETHING will remain as a reminder of what we've done to those sites. Something, like the hieroglyphics of the Ancient Egyptians will remain, and slowly will be deciphered. Or it won't be, but we currently wouldn't know what plants to eat and what not to without those who ventured a little too far into the dangerous territory of such plants and didn't make it back to teach the rest of us where not to eat/dig/be. If we are them, we will change and live on, as we have. If they are different, they will change and live on or simply die. If they are different, they may still be few of many, and their example will live on.

Sandra said...

I agree with Lena that the prime focus right now should be on developing eco-friendly ways of disposing nuclear waste and pondering what can be done with the existing accumulation of it. 10;000 years is a pretty long time, a time frame that would surely allow for significant advances in science so as to prevent the harmful consequences of nuclear waste.

On the other hand, I think it;s great that artists are involving themselves with environmental issues as well as making them accessible to the public. Another way that media and technology could be used to warn humans of the effects (allowing for the proper advancement in technology to make this available of course) is by employing a holografic projection. This projection would be activated when a certain proximity to the nucleaR waste site was reached and it would depict the a person entering the site and the entailing consequences. I think this would be effective because unlike the other examples given, this would be 3d and therefore something that people would percieve as being closer to reality and more related to them, thus making it more effective. Also the hologram would depict a person and not a drawing, also adding to the credibility of the warning.

D.V. Caputo said...

The design problem of trying to make a particular message communicable for societies thousands of years our junior seems extremely difficult, if not impossible. To agree with industrialkitty, the spike design or even the black hole design could very well be given the same sort of attention we give to Stonehenge today--something the designers definitely don't want. The pictograms seem to be getting somewhere, and may very well work for a few thousand years. However, as absurd as this may sound, who knows how humans will look in the 11,990s? Will we even have arms or legs?

It seems like we're better off simply launching our waste into space.

Svea said...

There are many forms of media, and the ways which they could go about showing us hidden facets of important things change with the form. It's hard to describe all of the ways in which media can show invisible assumptions to those viewing it. A very broad media would have to make it interesting enough to grab attention of those consuming it. However, a media with a more focused content could make something more abstract and meaningful, which could communicate more but would require interest from the outset. It's hard to know what will appeal to consumers of general media as they are a very large and diverse group and it can be hard to convince them that what they are being show is important. Because of this, I think it's much easier for those working with a smaller and more specific group of consumers to demonstrate a different side of something.

Nina said...

looking at the designs that have been created especially the spikes to warn civilization 10,000 years into the future does not seem to be a great solution. I feel as if there would be no context for anyone to understand the meaning. For all we know, in the future people could believe it was a work of art, I think it would be similar to creating something like stonehenge, where we could only guess the reasoning. It seams plausible that graphic images on a structure that could withstand different environmental impacts could possibly be part of the solution. Maybe the answer is not to create something to warn the future but to think about why we are actually needing to bury nuclear waste.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the black hole, when i saw that image the first thing that came into mind was how that heat would effect the surrounds and the waste buried bellow. Although the black hole was my favorite out of the three, I thought the installation might cause a greater effect to the environment. As for the pictograph it might be simple but i had to look over it a couple of times before i fully understood it. 100,000 years from now they could interpret it differently. It's a really bad example but they might think the person is pregnant, or SOMETHING.... if language will decay to the point people won't understand, i don't see why images won't either. Everything in the future might look completely different from now. Which brings me to why can't they just keep it simple with words, but they update it every decade or something. SO the sign changes as we do.

Andrew Tatreau said...

I think that one thing that may stand the time of language and images is sensation, and more specifically pain. Think about barbed wire, electric fences, invisible fences, etc. All trigger pain, which in return is associated with danger. There are also audible devices that only affect people under the age of 25 due to a part in our ear picking up high tones, which deteriorates with age. In my opinion, the best approach is to create some sort of invisible laser/barrier that can create enough pain in those approaching the proximity to trigger a sense of danger without doing long-term harm. To withstand geographical time, maybe it would be possible to project this barrier from space.

Jason M said...

"There is a growing awareness of how humans are shaping and creating within decades what previously changed naturally over millennia (melting glaciers and changing weather patterns) or didn't exist all, but will now outlast the planet (growing stockpiles of nuclear waste and plastic accumulation in the oceans). Finding ways to visualize this awareness is crucial for media and graphic designers who want to create effective forms visual rhetoric for environmentalism."

I feel that this statement relates directly to many of the panelists at the A+E Conference because their views about such awareness is going in this direction. It is obvious that humans have created many harmful changes in the environment in the past few decades, and I agree that there is not enough awareness that is being spread through the use of media.

Jason M said...

The task of designing a warning sign that could be understood in 10,000 years is something else that I found very interesting. How do we as designers consider such as task? How can we use visual language that is so strong that it will be just a strong in say 10,000 years as it is today?

Brian said...

The attempt at communicating warning to humans in the future must be a constant work in progress evolution. There cannot be just one sign from 2008. It will need constant attention from scientists, activists, and artists.

Our main focus should not be passing off the danger to the future of our race, it should be fixing what damage we have created, and finding alternate ways of sustainability. There are toxins that are filling up our planet, and yet the gears of industry and profit keep churning like clockwork.

Lisa said...

I feel bad for future humans. Hopefully they will actually only get more intelligent. Intelligent about what they choose to research and create and even what not to bother experimenting with. We shouldn't have to have signs that say "warning don't dig here, old nuclear waste." Whhyyy are we creating more problems for ourselves? That doesn't sound like a good idea.

Hellface said...

I am fascinated by this nuclear artwork. It's great that artists are making an awareness of these issues in ways that people can relate to. What is so wonderful about using art as a medium to express environmental issues is that everyone can understand it, not just academics. The art fits the information into a concise package that speaks volumes without a single written word. This reminds me of graffiti artists, like Banksy or Mr. Brainwash- these artists are taking cultural icons and by altering them slightly, making a profound cultural statement. (i.e.- Mr. Brainwash's famous images of Michael Jackson wearing a Marilyn Monroe wig). I hope that this type of nuclear-awareness artwork becomes more well known. It would be interesting to have this type of artwork displayed in a gallery- to make it a party, with drinks and DJ's, to get people to come out and notice the work.