I escaped from the confines of the unreal state of mind to the unreal land. To send you a message. Look, from here to there is so-called nature, an unstable no-mans land, that covers up the sea. What lies under this new earth is simply the discarded, objects of life, rocks and trees, shaped by the finite imagination of the drawing hand, executed by the relentless machine. In this other earth, we grow new bodies...
— Excerpt from the performance film Where from Here (2020), Part 4 (June 8, 2020 / Jätkäsaari, Helsinki, Released 7 December 2020), performed by Ulla Varis.
Another hill, another artificial landfill. This one is composed of construction waste, discarded concrete blocks, bricks, pipes and ducts, and even unused gravestones. A lone mechanical excavator stands on its peak, its arm drawn down as if in defeat. The performer finds herself drawn to the machine, to its muscular body and chain-linked tracks. It is a powerful tool and a weapon to seize the earth and reorganize its constituents. The performer examines the landfill and the machine hoping to elicit a response and a relationship to the artificiality of the new land that has formed overnight on the edge of the Baltic Sea. This scene is the fourth part of the performance film Where from Here, filmed between Helsinki and New York, exploring the entanglements of virtuality and ecology.1
A remarkable instance of geoengineering, the landfill is part of the city’s land reclamation project in southern Helsinki. Situated in the district of Jätkäsaari, the new landmass extends the edge of the city into the Baltic Sea. Housing developments, parks and canals are planned. This is another example of urban expansion into the sea, where islands and peninsulas that inherently need water, data, and energy to sustain them, are operationalized as infrastructure. 2 Seen from above, the landfill is like a giant orthogonal tongue, sprawling out from the mainland. Its contents, while not exceptionally toxic, are leftovers of demolitions and excavations from other parts of the city. Assorted rock types, chunks of cement and concrete, brick works and mixed earth form its core, making up an unstable territory, not unlike the overburden of a mine displaced during extraction. On the mid-level landing, where the gravestones form a transitional cemetery, there’s a moment of respite from the scorching heat, and at the top with the silent excavator, there is some relief from the cold winds blowing in from the sea.
The performer engages with the excavator and the surrounding landscape, acknowledging the power of the machine to re-organize and create space. For her, it becomes imperative to connect with it, to know it, even empathize with it. Awareness of its destructive and creative power takes away the fear, which is now simply replaced by familiarity. Gigantic machines such as this are used in mining operations all over the world. They have the power to dig in, to lift and re-arrange the ground – to extract, to carry and to re-order. The ground is meek and loose, mere abandoned soil, allowing itself to be molded in any way the city planner’s drawings depict. The machine is just the willing executor of drawings, the co-creator of an artificial territory for a future infrastructure to be filled in. The performer meditates on this new geology, especially of the heterogenous matter that comes into being. None of it can be classified nor neatly categorized. “The human and inhuman are so often mapped as binaries onto organic and inorganic matter… Geology is often assumed to be without a subject, thing-like and inert, whereas biology is secured in the recognition of the organism, body-like and sentient.”3 But here, it is clear that the formation of the earth is entangled with organisms, from single-cells to complex mammals, bacteria as well as viruses. These make some of our deepest intimacies possible. The earth, the body, the organism, the self, spiral into one another.
Land reclaimed from the sea creates its own set of issues. There is not only the need to integrate an unknown spatiality to the body of the city, the land also becomes a stage for new social and biological relationships which cause additionalinstability. Add to it the waste materials of construction used for filling the coastal soil, which brings with it toxicity and inorganic elements such as plastic and synthetics. Naturally, coastal marine habitats are destroyed in the process, as the sharp edges of plastic and manufactured materials cause violent offloads of stormwater that disturb the aquatic life and coastal ecosystems. 4 By this production of a ‘new’ soil, multiple processes of environmental damage are unfolding, affecting human-earth relations as well challenging what it means to be ‘urban’. Simultaneously, the artificial hill is the stage setting for a nonhuman geos. 5 In other words, it is the site for multiple chemical substances and geological processes shaping the immediate environment. When the soil settles down, compacted to form new stratigraphic layers, it will also be home to chemical, biological and geologic processes, most of which may not be obviously related to the human domain. This mix also includes submerged marine habitats and species of algae and bacteria. This new geology will, despite its conflicting temporalities, be beyond human appropriation and consumption. And still, this nonhumanity is the result of human material necessities and a foundation for a new Anthropocene layer. How would one care for such emerging human-biological-geological relationships?
To even start caring, Pierre Bélanger notes, “the full complexity of biodynamic processes and resources [needs to be] visualized and deployed across the full footprint of urbanism and the life cycles of infrastructure”.6 Or as Maria Puig de La Bellacasa writes: the relation between humans and soul is “a captivating terrain to engage with the intricate entanglements of material necessities, affective intensities, and ethico-political troubles of caring obligations in the more than human worlds.” 7 Could it be that caring for the extracted landfill and the reclaimed land from the sea require us to foster the endurance of its dead objects and species through time? Could we foster an ethics of care that recognizes the agency of all others, including discarded bricks, toxic chemicals, marine microbiology and concrete blocks ? Must we also examine how this extractivist terrain not only produces “output or provide(s) services to humans but also (…) how humans are specifically obliged, how they are providing for this new Anthropocene layer? “8 This performative scene from Where from Here offers a glimpse into this emerging nonhuman geology; it invites us to reimagine it and empathize with it. The landscape of the artificial landfill is enmeshed with nonhuman life, as experienced by the performer, and needs to be thought of and cared for. But how? That is a question for planners and the future inhabitants of this neighborhood.9 We are ecosystems rather than discrete entities. There is no distance between us.