The book I See That I See What You Don’t See presents a layered, non-binary notion of darkness. Navigating through cosmic, automated and seemingly invisible environments, it looks into what we do not generally get – or choose – to see, as well as the relationship between the possibility of seeing and forms of oppression and emancipation.
In this publication, the exercise of seeing and revealing what generally remains concealed purposely avoids the metaphor of light as wisdom and knowledge. Rather, diverse contributions aim for an understanding of the contrasting effects of light access, deprivation and overexposure on different bodies; the influence of radiation on human and non-human behaviours; the coexistence with the invisible yet pervasive architecture of the digital; the perception of instances of synchronicity with the cosmos; and the role of design in these realms.
All these instances construct a fragmented representation of a contemporary landscape – a hyperconnected and controlled environment; one that is the result of persistent acts of design, and one where the borders between nature, ecology, technology, and culture increasingly fade, altering the body’s changing relationship with the cycles of light and darkness.
Design is not positioned as a solution to a problem here, but rather as a practice that is often part of the problems that it claims to solve.
By establishing crossovers between design and biology, forensic science, cosmology or activism, and venturing beyond the traditional notion of the design product, this publication aims to challenge the dominance of the market, as well as hegemonic powers, in the design discipline and practice – a recurring pursuit of Het Nieuwe Instituut. In sharpening our perception, which tends to be affected by the condition of permanent performance, each contribution offers a critical practice through which to open spaces for transgression.
In Dirt, artist Leanne Wijnsma investigates design’s ability to influence instinctual behaviour. Her contribution revolves around the production of three skin fragrances that act as invisible carriers of information. Wijnsma's aim is to explore the ability to determine our actions or choices through bodily odour and, more precisely, by manipulating the microbiome.
With over 1,000 bacterial species living in our gut, the human body is filled with life.
The microbiome outnumbers human genomes, and is part of the unconscious system regulating immune functions, cognition, learning, and memory. It has an important role in how humans socialise and communicate, which suggests that the microbiome is the next frontier for health sciences, commerce and politics.
Contemporary forms of socialising and physical affection are at the core of designer Lucy McRae’s work, presented here in the form of a photo essay. Compression Cradle is an affectionate squeezing machine designed to assist the body in the release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for building trust and pair-bonding. Through a choreography of touch sensations, McRae’s mechanism seeks to repair the broken bonds between ourselves, our emotions, and the way we interface with the world.
Similarly, artist Melvin Moti addresses the ways in which human feelings and actions are conditioned by seemingly invisible actors. Moti's essay focuses on the Cosmists, a 19th- and early 20th-century group of Russian thinkers who combined occult and esoteric theories with space science to define a set of beliefs on the relationship between humans and the cosmos. This departs from a series of studies by scientist Alexander Chizhevsky that presented a correlative increase in wars, revolutions and epidemics during years of high solar activity.
Interview with Norman Yoder
While Moti explores the effect of cosmic radiation on human behaviour, journalist and documentary film-maker Bregtje van der Haak investigates the other invisible waves surrounding us – radio frequency radiation. As wireless networks and WiFi-powered devices stream invisible radio waves through the air, a contested territory simultaneously emerges. Connected and unconnected worlds are the result of larger digital, socio-economic, and political local and global divides. Van der Haak is particularly interested in sharing stories of a deliberate lack of connectivity, even inside the world's most intensely digital hubs.
In the frontiers of the networked world, there are still unwired landscapes where individuals and communities question the need to be always connected in one seamless, planetary tech-topia.
An interview with Norman Yoder explores the decision of his Amish community in Indiana, USA, to be off-grid, and its implications in a connected world.
Automated Landscapes turns to the other side of the coin, the hyperconnected environment sustaining the 24-hour economy. The project peeks into the Netherlands' productive landscape – an overarching Cartesian territory based on efficiency and growth, and dependent on data, technology, and energy. Its automated spaces reveal the impact of the maximisation of the land through lighting technologies for year-long crops. Not by chance, the country is one of the most illuminated on the planet.
With their lights always switched on, these automated landscapes articulate changing relationships with the natural rhythms affected by the cycles of light and darkness.
As a result, the traditional dichotomy between day and night seems no longer relevant in terms of productivity, and the experience of a clear, starry night sky has become a rarity.
Not all night shifts are worked by robots. In The Unsleep, Danilo Correale presents a tale at the edge of sci-fi and reality. Through a series of interviews with telecommunications workers employed in the outsourced service industries, Correale unpacks the relationship of sleep and wakefulness as modes of production and consumption, defining a new chrono-imperialistic domain.
This project then finds a theoretical underpinning in Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which explores the ways in which the marketplace operates through every hour of the clock. This non-stop activity has a damaging impact on forms of social and political expression, and Crary argues that, within this framework, sleep has become a form of resistance to capitalism.
The Dark Days
While some parts of the planet are affected by the constant presence of light, in others life evolves in its absence, around recurrent power outages and blackouts. The Dark Days by Saidiya Hartman presents darkness as an unevenly distributed and designed condition. Hartman recalls her experiences in Accra, Ghana, in the midst of an energy crisis and rationing policies. The city, or at least whole areas of it, lived without electricity for half the week, and access to light was dependent on inhabitants owning a private generator.
While more privileged areas were illuminated, entire neighbourhoods remained immersed in a heavy darkness, one that is rarely seen in today’s cities.
For Hartman, that time in Accra navigating the unpowered city served to question darkness, as well as the incapacity to see, as tantamount to lack of knowledge, an idea prevalent in Western philosophy. She instead points to how the ignorance of the West has been systematically projected onto Africa, which is often labelled as “the heart of darkness, the dark continent, the blighted territory.”
Blackness, at the Limits of Nothingness
What if instead of a void or absence, darkness is, borrowing from Denise Ferreira da Silva, conceived as a type of dark matter with generative and self-actualisation potential? A “first act of creation” in a continual process of creating one’s own reality. That is the proposal of Darkness, as a First Act of Creation by scholar Ramon Amaro.
Rather than understanding darkness as a lack of illumination or absence of light, Amaro talks about an after-image – an image that continues to appear in one’s vision after the original stimulus has taken place.
While most after-images are generally treated as optical illusions, he argues, they point to the possibility that what we see in the present differs from actual reality. “They are fragments of the past brought forward into our present vision as deceptions and misrepresentations of the real,” Amaro writes. By questioning genetic memory, he in fact problematises the Black body as a technology.
Provocations on Shadow Play
Poet Momtaza Mehri mirrors this notion, writing about darkness as an errant component: “One of the many, varied archipelagos native to what we describe and ascribe as Blackness”. Referring also to Ferreira da Silva, Mehri observes the immaterial, the ephemeral, and the foundational through “Blacklight” or a “Blackened gaze”– a gaze in synchronicity with the modalities of Black expression, political subjectivity, and daily self-determination. Darkness, Mehri claims, overwhelms the capacity for representation, yet in a world where darkness is so often criminalised, visibility does not guarantee a shift in power relations.
Actually, being illegible or opaque remains transgressive and opens up avenues for freedom.
To be in the dark is not necessarily to be invisible or forgotten – it is to operate on a different frequency.
The Overview Effect
Whether addressing light pollution, forms of exploitative labour, or systemic violence and discrimination at the core of late-capitalist society, these positions invite discussion on the symbolic currency of darkness within racial, socio-political and environmental consciousness. The shaping of the latter has generally been situated in the late 1960s and 70s, as a result of the release of images of Earth from outer space to the general public.
At Christmas 1968, halfway between the moon and the Earth, the Apollo 8 astronauts sent a message upon seeing our planet. Their enthusiasm for the beauty of what they were contemplating was quickly followed by verses on the act of creation according to Christian thought. God, the Apollo 8 crew reassured their audience, created heaven and earth. “Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep,” they explained. “God then brought light, and seeing that it was good, divided the light from the darkness.”
The “overview effect”, as it is called, is prompted by a vision of Earth from outer space – a “blue marble” surrounded by darkness.
This experience reportedly impacts astronauts’ behaviour and views on life, prompting a cognitive shift. These experiences predominantly revolve around our ability to connect with the broader system of the universe.
Environmental consciousness, instead of religious fervour, was what the vision of Earth triggered in former astronaut Wubbo Ockels. The words he shared at the end of his life, which continue to resonate today, are a plea to love and conserve the Earth: “In space you see that you’re the only one. The only planet... We, we people,” Ockels lamented, "coming from the same molecules out of one bloody strong star which burst it out... Life, life is made by we. We humanity are so strong that we can save the Earth. But we also can destroy it.”
The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity
1968 was also the year when architect Aldo van Eyck designed The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity. Conceived as the Dutch entry to the Triennale di Milano, the exhibition by Van Eyck provided a disturbing view of the collapse of Western welfare societies. Visitors had to cross through a forest of tree trunks and enter into a space dressed in broken mirrors. Laughter came out of speakers.
Huge photographs depicted Western civilisation as, unlike most traditional cultures, unable to solve the problem of the large number.
“Mourn also for all butterflies,” announced a wall text. In the last space, an installation brought a message of hope – a vast multiplicity does not necessarily lead to catastrophe. A message, nevertheless, that didn’t reach the visitors. In the midst of the students protests of 1968 that led to the occupation of the Triennale, Van Eyck’s work never opened to the public.
Mobilis in Mobile: How Can We Act in the Anthropocene?
Educated with concepts such as “the balance of nature” and the plea that humanity has to take a few steps back to restore it, Dirk Sijmons also reflects on the impact of human action on the planet. Sijmons takes a critical approach to the discussions around the climate crisis and environmental degradation. “Now we know”, he explains, “that we will never return to that calm and stable Holocene”. His essay unpacks the different philosophical, ideological, and political positions or attitudes around the Anthropocene. It is the time for pluralism and persistent debate, Sijmons argues – the time for simple, univocal solutions is over, and going forward will be a muddling-through.
Critical and imaginative adaptation to the unexpected, the yet unseen, will guide a way forward.
In Sijmons’ work, as well as in others in this publication, design is positioned as a destructive as well as restorative endeavour – a critical practice that denaturalises conventional ways of inhabiting and experiencing the world. After all, current modes of seeing and understanding the environment are designed, and could therefore be redesigned.
An audiocast to support the launch was released on 21 December 2020. With contributions by artist/researcher Danilo Correale, poet Momtaza Mehri, The Academy for Urban Astronauts, composer Zeger de Vos, and researcher Setareh Noorani reading an essay by Saidiya Hartman.
Editors: Marina Otero Verzier, director of Research at Het Nieuwe Instituut, and Francien van Westrenen, head of Agency at Het Nieuwe Instituut; Text editing and translations: Jack Eden and Gert Staal; Design: Rudy Guedj.
Contributors: The Academy for Urban Astronauts, Ramon Amaro, Danilo Correale, Jonathan Crary, Aldo van Eyck, Ludo Groen, Bregtje van der Haak, Saidiya Hartman, Marten Kuipers, Lucy McRae, Momtaza Mehri, Melvin Moti, Johannes Schwartz, Dirk Sijmons, and Leanne Wijnsma.
Publisher: Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
I See That I See What You Don’t See is available via NAi Booksellers.
This publication is generously supported by The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.