Category Archives: activism

The joy of apocalypse

Recent announcements by Exxon-Mobil and George Bush indicate that we are now moving out of the climate change denial phase and into the sabotage-and-delay-by-spurious-solution phase (with a good dash of solutions-that-are-worse-than-the-problem like nuclear power and sunlight blocking). It all means that serious catastrophe looks increasingly likely.

We don’t really believe it will end in apocalypse but it’s worth thinking about complete apocalypse if only to get the full range of possible consequences clear in your head. After all, right now much of the developed world, particularly the US, is behaving as if the slightest change (eg less cars, more public transport) will be equivalent to apocalypse.

(Havana. Photo unpeuplus)

The reality is that even genuine and enormous catastrophe is not the end, humans are amazingly adaptive and some places have already had to face the problems that still lie ahead for the rest of us. Cuba has already had its peak oil crisis with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. Ironically, almost 40 years of US economic embargoes may have made it the society most likely to survive intact, with lots of empty highways ideal for cycling.

(Photo Lauras512– check out her Cuba cycling holiday)

Culture change discusses the Cuban example and suggests Plan B for survival where adaptive reuse will be the order of the day

Depaving is a vast opportunity to free up land. There is more paved land in the U.S than officially designated wilderness. There is unused pavement even with the vast numbers of unnecessary motor vehicles today. Driveways and parking lots are easiest to remove. Tearing up roads is harder because of the deeper and harder road bed. However, trees can still be planted in roads and former roads.

On the other hand Dmitry Orlov is grimly hilarious on the lessons the US might learn from the Soviet experience of national collapse and the adaptation necessary to survive.

In all, I expect drugs and alcohol to become one of the largest short-term post-collapse entrepreneurial opportunities in the United States, along with asset stripping, and security.

And while we are talking about hilarious, the Anthropik Network‘s advocacy of primitivism and survivalist tribalism is whacky if not downright sinister but their 30 Theses make for a thought provoking read. One bit we can agree with is their catchcry that “First, civilization is fragile, and second, humans are not”. Of course, as they point out, we all see these things through our own prejudices

He isn’t alone in seeing what he wants to see of course – the Viridian camp sees a shiny green future awaiting us in the post oil world, old school oil guys like T Boone Pickens see a exploration and drilling bonanza, energy industry investors like Matt Simmons and Henry Groppe see soaring energy prices, gold bugs see rampart inflation and soaring gold prices, ferals and hippies see a return to living closer to nature, socialists see the revival of marxism, conspiracy theorists see government/elite conspiracies and the rise of the new world order, primitivists see the collapse of industrial civilisation and human dieoff, libertarians see an opportunity for the market to bring new energy sources and technologies to us, fascists see an opportunity for a return to authoritarianism and some of the uglier approaches to population control used by their ilk in the past, economists see supply and demand issues being resolved by energy prices, military-industrial complex members see the need to militarily dominate the energy rich regions of the planet, end-times Christian fundamentalists see another symptom of the impending rapture and survivalists see an opportunity to say “I told you so” and finally get to use the skills and tools they’ve spent their lives practicing for.

You’ve just got to remember that whatever you are being sold

it can sometimes be hard to tell if it’s a joke

or if they are serious (from the National Atomic Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico, photos by Life on the Edge). Have a happy apocalypse!

The Busycle

Last year we linked to Moz, the creator of one less ute, a load bearing bicycle designed to carry up to 200kg. Given a recent random encounter with the man at a new years festival, it was hardly surprising that Moz should show up again, this time as part of the crew behind the construction of the Busycle.

Conceived of as a “public art project” by Heather Clark and Matthew Mazzotta, the Busycle is a “15 person 100% pedaled vehicle”. It adaptively reuses materials “ranging from office chairs to steel bed frames” in a creation where the emphasis is as much on the communal effort involved in building and powering it, as it is on the creation of an alternative mode of transport.

Over 50 people participated in the design and construction of this vehicle with an impressive diversity of backgrounds and expertise contributing to the project’s realization. A quick look at the bio’s section of the busycle website is enough to send Nicolas Bourriaud into a frenzy. His term “relational aesthetics” has vicariously attached itself to many modes of artist production as well as to notions of “newness” and “the avant garde” in contemporary art. In some ways projects like the Busycle are responsible for reclaiming and reinvigorating the territory which the term relational aesthetics sought to map out. The collaboration and engineering involved in creating the Busycle moves the relational beyond its formulaic application in the art gallery context, into territory where its identification as art becomes unimportant.

Going batty

The world was does not belong only to humans, notwithstanding the deluded ravings of right wing religious extremists.

We share it with a still unknown number of other species and most of them can be pretty awe inspiring once you get to know them better.

What better way to spend your life than trying to make the world better for them rather than worse as we have for the last few thousands of years? (Photos:JJ Kaczanow/Bat Conservation Trust). The Bat House project by 2004 Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller sets out to do exactly that.

Although not an adaptive reuse project in the strictest sense of the word, it is an attempt to adapt the environs of the city of London to make it a more bat friendly place.

Jeremy Deller and the Bat House Project Partners are pleased to invite you to join a collaborative initiative to imagine and design a home for bats in London.

The Project highlights the potential for architects, builders, home-owners and conservationists to work together to produce wildlife-friendly building design. It connects the worlds of art and ecology to encourage public engagement with ecology issues. The Project builds on the Mayor of London’s policies to raise awareness of urban biodiversity and to support the survival of London’s ten bat species.

Each month there is a challenge and the first, ending on January 15, 2007, asks What is it like being a bat in London?

Imagine you’re a bat in London. Where do you hang out? What do you see, feel, hear, eat, need? What attracts you? What gets in your way? Use any medium you like to communicate your idea .

Like Natalie Jeremijenko’s rooftop for pigeons, this is another example of art that gets our stamp of approval.

The gardener on the roof

There can be no doubt that urban agriculture is going to get more of our attention in the future but we draw the line at the adaptive reuse of entire city buildings for intensive urban farming, a dubious idea that seems to be yet another attempt to extend corporate control of food production, an issue that is already reaching crisis point.

Another reason to be cynical about such large scale corporate proposals is a basic management principle – if you have a major fuck up on your hands, get new people to fix it, never ever leave it to the same people who created the problem. Global warming goes with global capitalism and global capital’s “solutions” (eg more nuclear power) will always regard maintaining corporate power as a greater priority than solving the problem – that’s the nature of the globalist meme.

But that doesn’t mean that growing food on the rooftops of city buildings is a bad thing, in fact like all localised and independent forms of production it can be more sustainable and ethical and an important tactic in taking some control back from corporations. And it fits with our belief that adaptively reusing what already exists is always the first step.

Check out this article on rooftop hydroponics in Singapore. The move to food production is the latest step for the burgeoning green rooftop movement (a timeline of the development of green roofs is here).

For many years a building in Sydney’s central business district had a rooftop filled with water and water plants, a sort of rooftop swamp complete with spectacular birdlife. We don’t know if it’s still there but it was the first time we realised that the roof top garden could be more than just an aerial collection of pot plants.

In fact the technology of rooftop gardens has come a long way since then and the benefits of a green roof are now indisputable.

Green roofs conserve energy by moderating temperature on roof and surrounding areas, dramatically reduce storm water runoff, add ecological and aesthetic value by providing wildlife habitat in the urban environment and assist sustainability by protecting and extending the service life of the roof.

As Dr. Manfred Koehler, spokesperson for the new World Green Roof Infrastructure Network (WGRIN), launched this month in Berlin says

Rooftop greening provides an outstanding opportunity to accomplish multiple sustainability objectives and fight climate change.

Until recently the majority of green roofs were on contemporary buildings

such as this commercial building in Kassel, Germany,

the spectacular Osaka Municipal Central Gymnasium by nikken sekkei

or the recent coastal research Laboratories of the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute by Lyons Architecture for the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, considered to be Australia’s best green roof design so far (Photos John Gollings),

or the Solaire building, Battery Park, Manhattan, the first ‘green’ residential high-rise in North America. The building’s design incorporates two green roofs: an intensively planted 5,000 square foot terrace green roof on the 19th floor and a 4,800 square foot extensive green roof on the 28th floor. The cleaned run-off water from the roofs is collected in Solaire’s basement cistern along with the building’s grey water and is later used to irrigate nearby parks.

In recent years, however, a new trend has developed, green roofs on heritage buildings such as this roof garden atop Chicago City Hall, 11 stories and 220 feet above street level, or the incorporation of green roofs into adaptive reuse projects, thus further increasing the contribution that these projects make to sustainability. In many instances this now qualifies the buildings under various certification schemes for tax rebates, assisting their financial viability.

One typical example is the Brewers Hill project, a $120 million multi-stage redevelopment of one of Baltimore’s most significant historic brewery complexes into office space, retail shops, residential units and light industrial spaces. Cho Benn Holback + Associates has designed the focal point Natty Boh building, a 10-story brick building complete with planted green roofs and a rainwater collection system.

Some are even arguing that the adoption of green roofs is being accelerated by the bird’s eye view provided by easily available satellite imagery such as Google Earth:

In this degraded age, the roof is emerging as a focus of society’s growing environmental anxiety. Not that green roofs will save the planet — sadly — but in cities from Toronto to Tokyo they are viewed as increasingly necessary if we are to slow global warming. In the Japanese capital, green roofs are a legal requirement for all projects over a minimum size. Even Toronto’s rooftop profile is starting to change, to become greener, thanks in part to a growing awareness of the bird’s eye view.

On the other hand, speaking of the bird’s eye view, how often is a roof top designed for that much despised flying rat, the urban pigeon?

Here is one that is also an example of the sort of art that we really approve of.

It’s by Natalie Jeremijenko at Postmasters Gallery, New York, here’s the press release and here’s an interview and a profile. We first came across her as a mover and shaker at the admirable How Stuff Is Made project then discovered her numerous art projects.

All we can say is that the video here at Seed made our week.

The carcass of western capital

Although the developed world is full of abandoned mining and industrial sites like the Bethlehem steel works, the problems they pose are nothing compared to the difficulties of numerous sites in the third world. Africa is now facing major pollution issues, for instance, but South America has an even longer history of western exploitation.

Now little more than polluted and degraded bare bones left behind by global movements of capital, “El Cerro Rico” in Potosi, Boliva is home to some of the poorest and most desperate people on the planet, yet the silver from El Cerro Rico, mined by indigenous slave labour, supported the Spanish Empire for 250 years and ultimately bankrolled the industrial revolution in Europe. The community and its historic mines and buildings must be one of the most pressing candidates for an adaptive transformation to be found anywhere.

It is hard to exaggerate the role this bleak place has played in creating our world. Seemingly having learnt one small lesson from the Spanish, the current crop of US neocons make sure that the profits of their current colonial pillaging go straight into the pockets of their friends in the US oil and armaments industries. This may also have happened as Spain expanded its empire in the 16th century if not for the fact that the Spanish royals had just kicked both the Muslims and Jews out of their kingdom. This left their agricultural land bare and industry without a base. As a result the Spanish were forced to buy the resources they needed for their conquests from other European countries and in so doing they spread the wealth that they were robbing from the indigenous people of Latin America.

The mineral wealth discovered there during the 16th century provided the European continent with the largest injection of capital it had ever seen.
In its heyday, the riches of Potosi were spirited away to help finance the heavily indebted Spanish empire. During the 17th and 18th centuries this wealth flowed in increasing amounts directly into the coffers of the empire’s major creditors — Dutch and English bankers. It is no coincidence that England and the Netherlands subsequently became major colonial powers and were the world’s first to develop industrialised economies. (more here).

Needless to say, conditions for the workers of El Cerro Rico were nothing short of horrific. The BBC article quoted above says that conservative estimates of the number of people who died working in the mines of Potosi range from 4 to 6 million. In his book “The Open Veins of Latin America” Eduado Galleano places the figure at 8 million. He also gives this figure some context.

The Indigenous people of the Americas added up to no less than 70 million, and maybe more, when the foreign conquerors appeared on the horizon; one and a half centuries later they had been reduced, in total, to only three and half million.

Put these pieces of history together and we can see that the colonial expansion that led to the English arriving in Australia was at least partly funded by the horrible exploitation of the resources and people of Latin America.

The question of the restoration and adaptive reuse of these sites pales in comparison to the centuries of exploitation and environmental degradation. As such a clear example of the way the quest for capital has produced desolation and destruction, Potosi and its Cerro Rico already stand as a major monument to the greed and exploitation that has created the first world.

But if the buildings and mines of Potosi can be put to an alternative use that puts into perspective the scale of what has occurred there, while offering the current crop of miners something more than an early death, then it would surely be the most appropriate use that land has been put to since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

Fortunately UNESCO has recognized something of the great cultural and historical importance of the town and its mines.

Unesco is backing restoration projects for about 2,000 colonial buildings and is monitoring the conservation of the Cerro Rico, where the mining installations dating from colonial times are historic monuments.

Curiously there might be another resource waiting to be reused in and around Potosi. Writing here on the problem of cleaning up the horrible pollution caused by centuries of mining in Potosi Patrick Stack says

one of the best ways to clean up Potosí may be good old capitalism: The heavy metals in the area are prized for industrial use, and the cadmium, lead, and zinc in all those piles of tailings could make a nice profit for a company with the resources to extract them.

We can always hope…

Have a Merry Izzy Stone Day

One way to adaptively reuse Christmas would be to move it back a day. December 24 2006 would have been the 99th birthday of Isidor (Izzy) Feinstein (Stone),

probably the greatest investigative journalist that ever lived and a birthday far more worth celebrating than Christmas – after all, at least we know Izzy Stone actually existed. He is now justly recognised as the proto-blogger, the journalist-activist whose relentless campaigning exposed Maccarthyism and racism and the fraudulence of the Tonkin Gulf incident that was the excuse for US intervention in Vietnam. As Wikipedia says

as an outspoken leftist journalist working in often hostile environments, Stone’s stories needed to meet an extremely high burden of proof to be considered credible.

He was often wrong but admitted it, more often right but suspicious of himself when he was and always willing to revise his opinons when more facts became available – as a youthful communist fellow traveller he later criticised Stalinism and as a zionist supporter of the foundation of Israel he later developed sympathy for the Palestinians. He was a man who tried his best to never be blinded by ideology and wishful beliefs of either the right or the left. Truly a figure for our times.

He was also a modest self-critical man distrustful of honours, but he had a great sense of humour. (see Jerry Brucks 1973 film I.F Stones Weekly). He might have enjoyed the joke of being honoured with his own day as long as the right presents were given. What presents would it be appropriate to give on Izzy Stone Day? Well, we’ve found just the place to get them, Individual Icons whose adaptively reused hardware is described as “jewellery that works”.

There is the magnifying glass necklace for close examination,

the plumb bob necklace to help you stay upright

and the spirit level necklace to keep you on the level,

a ruler bangle to help keep things in proportion,

thermometer earrings for when the heat is on

and a compass ring so you don’t get lost.

Some odds and ends like grommets and Phillips head earrings can come in handy too, just to hold everything together.

And in case it all turns nasty,

you should wear a bullet proof rose.

Made of black heavy-weight ballistic grade nylon, this “bulletproof” bloom will protect your heart and love in times of conflict.

You can get it from Generate. Have a Merry Izzy Stone Day!


Everyone must have seen African tin toys made from reused tin cans, and the wire frame type that are often rather unsettling in their ghostliness.

The toy influence is obvious when you see this.

It’s the maquette for a much larger work that seems to have been made in a similar way from even bigger tin cans like oil drums. But it wasn’t and it’s connection to oil is far more sinister.

It’s a new memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and activist executed 11 years ago in Nigeria for his campaign against the environmental devastation of the Niger delta, and the oil-companies-sponsored campaign of genocide against the Ogoni people who live there. There is a great article and slide show about its construction by artist Sokari Douglas Camp in the Guardian.

It also reminded us of another vehicle,

one of the most impressive and unaccountably moving artworks we saw this year, by Paul Hopmeier at Defiance Gallery. Made from adaptively reused truck parts, it was based on an exhibit he saw in the Hermitage in St Petersburg,

a 5th century BC funerary vehicle, constructed from birch wood. Hopmeier’s open cage tumbril is as disturbing as the blind windows of the Saro-Wiwa bus, both vehicles of the dead.

But Ken Saro-Wiwa was hardly the first artist-activist executed on dubious charges. One of the greatest was also a master of adaptive reuse. We mean, of course, Joe Hill, the unionist and song writer executed in 1915. As an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (motto “sing and fight”) he wrote numerous parodies of popular songs and hymns – why should the devil have all the best tunes indeed! A typical example is “The preacher and the slave” (sung here by Shannon Murray), his version of the Salvation army dirge “In the sweet bye and bye” which gave us the now common term “pie in the sky”. The song’s condemnation of religious delusion and passivity in the face of injustice has not lost its bite in our age cursed by corporate religions.

His memorial is in the form of the great song “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill“, the first song to be sung in the Sydney Opera House for an audience of construction workers by an unaccompanied Paul Robeson. Robeson himself could almost be considered a martyr artist-activist, his achievements still slandered and his career destroyed because of his life-long and world-wide fight against racism.

Unfortunately Ken Saro-Wiwa is unlikely to to be the last martyr to corporate greed in the difficult century ahead.

Street life

It’s one thing to write about converting 747s into mansions but ultimately that’s only for an extremely wealthy minority.

Homelessness is endemic throughout the world and in the US alone approximately 3.5 million people are estimated to experience homelessness at some point annually, a million of them children. Extremist right wing governments have exacerbated the problem by cutting back health and welfare funding to such an extent that in Los Angeles, for instance, impoverished hospital patients are regularly dumped on Skid Row, as captured on LA Police video below.

Homelessness itself has been criminalised in some cities and numerous attempts are made to make public spaces as uncongenial as possible for everyone except paying consumers.

Check out the anti-sit archives for numerous examples of inventive small-minded malevolence.

But there have been some interesting attempts to adapt and manipulate public spaces and street furniture to alleviate some of the problems of homelessness.

Australian architect Sean Godsell has adaptively reused both the park bench and

the bus shelter for use by the homeless. This flies in the face of the bureaucratic impulse to prevent the homeless from benefitting from any public facilities by putting armrests in the middle of benches, sloping the seats etc (warning: great architect, another crappy flash animated website).

Artist Michael Rakowitz‘s paraSITE proposes a parasitical adaptive reuse of waste heated air from air conditioning exhausts to inflate and warm a shelter.

It comes in several versions.

And although Lucy Orta‘s Refuge Wear is more artwork than practical she is attempting to blend and adapt our concepts of clothing and shelter into a practical unity.

The adaptive reuse of shipping containers is the bigger version of this type of homeless shelter and Sean Godsell’s Future Shack is a now famous example although it’s so good that anyone would want to live in it. But it’s time to face up to it, homeless and refugee shelter is going to be one of the big issues of the coming century.

Bicycle ute

Here’s another bicycle reuse. This time its Moz who, among other things, adapts old bicycles to become new load-bearing human powered vehicles like this one.

Often this kind of adaption is a prototype for building these designs from scratch, as with the development of the long bike into one less ute.