For a century, Eastman Kodak’s paternalistic style of industrial capitalism was anchored in an ideology of family: the company’s advertisements proffered an image of the white, middle-class family life as the apogee of the American Dream; in Rochester, New York where the company was headquartered, Kodak’s employee welfare programs made the nuclear family a sociological reality for generations of workers; and within the company, family circulated as a metaphor for power relations.
But, in 1988, after five years of corporate downsizing, revelations of environmental contamination near Kodak’s factories recast the corporation as a chemical company, trafficking in hazardous waste and concerned with its bottom line. These out-of-control, toxic flows materialized the ways in which both corporate power and kinship work through secrecy, violence, and contamination.
Drawing on feminist and psychoanalytic theory as well as archival and ethnographic fieldwork with former Kodak workers, environmental activists, and city residents, this paper tracks how the maintenance of secrecy was constitutive of both film production and the ways of life that Kodak made possible. Attending to the aesthetics of contamination and purity, I take pollution as a sex act and analyze Kodak’s betrayal through the idioms of intimacy that workers and neighbors still use to describe the company. Following Eve Sedgwick’s claim that sexuality is inextricable from knowledge production and the open secret (2008), I ask: what does the scandal of industrial pollution reveal about the erotics of secrecy, and what might the secret of capitalist violence reveal about ideologies of the family?
Ali Feser is currently a Harper Schmidt Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Social Science at the University of Chicago. She is a cultural anthropologist trained at Bard College and the University of Chicago, and her work is situated at the intersection of visual studies, science studies, queer and feminist theory, and the anthropology of late industrialism. Her book manuscript, Photochemical Life in the Imaging Capital of the World, is an ethnography of U.S. visual culture, industrial capitalism, and political fantasy through a material history of Kodak film. She is also working in collaboration with artist Jason Lazarus on a series of installations based on her research. The first of these will be exhibited at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida in November 2021.
Ice is a stable, chemically neutral, storage medium that has been recording planetary processes for millions of year. Any materials that have been released into the atmosphere are stored in the Earth’s frozen archives, most notably deposited onto the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. Every atmospheric nuclear test has therefore also been archived by the stratigraphy of annual layers of snowfall that have slowly compressed to form ice. This is because isotopic fallout enters into global circulation systems en masse propelled by wind currents and jet streams that distribute contaminates globally. No matter where a nuclear test, detonation, or accident took place, airborne radioactive isotopes have managed to circumnavigate the Earth within the space of a year to settle and penetrate even the furthest reaches of the Poles.
In 1955 scientists in Greenland started to drill and extract ice cores in preparation for the International Geophysical Year of 1957. Nuclear fallout has played a strangely productive, albeit troubling role, in the history of ice core science. When the Limited Test Ban Treaty governing the cessation of all atmospheric, underwater, and outer space nuclear detonations was ratified by the United States, former Soviet Union and the United Kingdom on the 5th of August 1963 many nations had stockpiled a considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons. As the effective date for the treaty grew nearer the period just prior to its implementation witnessed the unleashing of a final intensified barrage of atomic blasts, which shows up as a distinct radioactive signature in the crystalline structure of ice. Consequently the temporal baseline calibration of all global ice cores, regardless of geographic origin, is 1963. Finding 1963 in ice enables synchronisation across all samples.
Susan Schuppli is an artist-researcher based in the UK whose work examines material evidence from war and conflict to environmental disasters and climate change. Current work is focused on the politics of cold and is organised by the provocation of “Learning from Ice”. Creative projects have been exhibited throughout Europe, Asia, Canada, and the US. She is a recipient of a COP26 Creative Commission sponsored by the British Council. Schuppli has published widely within the context of media and politics and is author of the new book, Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence published by MIT Press in 2020. She is Director of the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London and is an affiliate artist-researcher and Board Chair of Forensic Architecture. Schuppli is the 2016 recipient of the ICP Infinity Award for Critical Writing and Research.
Steve McQueen’s Western Deep (2002, Super 8 film, transferred to video) opens with a barrage of sound within a pitch-black “cinema-like space”. Critics and observers have described the experience as one in which viewers are subjected to “an oppressive deluge of industrial rumbling sounds in which the “walls and floors shake.” Such vibratory exposure to sound in the viewing space is verbalized as enabling a documentary ‘mimicry’ close to what miners’ themselves experience daily experience. Such projections, however, overlook seminal phenomenological differences between the sensorium of the miner’s ear (Morris 2008) and those visiting venues of the artworld. In this paper, I draw upon my research on “noise-induced hearing loss,” an occupational health category that become formalized and bureaucratized in the 20th century, to map out differences in the transductive pathways of sonic exposure that shape its aesthetic, legal, and epistemic meanings; such pathways shape whether exposure operates as an aesthetic experience, form of clinical evidence, or a conduit of bodily discipline. In doing so, my work aims to contribute understanding on how the affordances of differently sensitive surfaces and their concretization within historically-specific technical modalities (“O’Gorman and Hamilton 2016) enabled the emergence of competing logics and forms of subjectivity in relation to conceptualization of injury, risk, and loss.
Cynthia Browne is currently an anthropologist and media practitioner based in Germany. Her current research focuses on the material afterlives of mining and operates at the intersection of media studies, sensory ethnography, science and technology studies, and the anthropology of extraction. Currently she is a post-doctoral research associate with the interdisciplinary research training group “Documentary Practices: Excess and Privation” at the Ruhr University in Bochum Germany, as well as a 2020/2021 Fellow at the Institute for Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. She is also an alumni of the Critical Media Practice program at Harvard University, where she received her doctorate in Social Anthropology in 2019. Her book manuscript Utopic Wastelands: Site-Specific Art and the Re-making of Germany’s Ruhr region, examines the multiple, conflicting temporalities inhering in efforts to aesthetically and pragmatically reframe Germany’s former coal and steel heartland into a post-industrial “cultural metropolis.”
Anna Polze is pursuing her PhD within the research training group „Documentary Practices. Excess and Privation“ at Ruhr-University Bochum. Her dissertation project focuses on postdigital evidence and documentary media witnessing with special emphasis on the video investigations by Forensic Architecture. Anna studied media culture and cultural history and theory in Weimar, Berlin, Lyon and Paris.