Anti-Gravity: Beyond the Planet Earth with Paul Chaney and a Swarm of Locusts

Catalogue essay on the work of Paul Chaney in the exhibition Turborealism (Breaking Ground), Izolyatsia, Donetsk, Ukraine, 2013

Biomedical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone is the only surviving member of an American astronaut crew on a routine Hubble repair mission that is aborted when, without warning, “the Russians” [sic] fire a missile intended to destroy an obsolete spacecraft. The debris causes a chain reaction, turning low Earth orbit into a free fire zone of pulverized junk. With her colleagues dead and gone, Stone flees Hubble. In a Sokol pressure suit, she cowers alone in a Russian capsule, resigned to her own death, having turned off the oxygen supply in despair of ever reaching the Chinese space station she was aiming for.

Unable to distinguish between reality and post-traumatic delirium, haunted by the memories of her colleague Shariff Dasari’s empty imploded skull, and resigned to the impossibility of returning home, space’s last surviving WASP holds a halting one-way conversation with the confused squawks that blurt from the radio, attenuated signals from Earth mixed with stochastic noise released by the massive fused lump of ideologically charged slag detonated by “the Russians.” We hear an ambient composition of language fragments, disconnected network packets, degraded chronotopes, and tattered, obsolete ideologemes, shredded texts once exchanged by terrestrial devices that now bounce around the semiotic void: the instructions for a meat grinder and a page of Pushkin, the bark of a dog, an Inuit lullaby, a Lenin radio-telegram over country and western slide guitar.

Stone opens the circular airlock door and drifts out into space. Strangely, she is still able to breathe, although the air is thin and chill. The flotsam and jetsam, now floating past piece by piece in dreamy slow motion, appears to be endowed with an uncanny ventriloquism, each item a mask through which discourse can be maintained with a stream of hereditary info-garbage. The last agent of a decaying power and its inward-looking nostalgia for the Earth, Stone drifts helplessly in space and time.

STONE: Houston in the blind … Do you read me? … I am entirely surrounded by the debris field. Mission integrity has been compromised.

THE CENTRIFUGE: What are you guys doing out here anyway?

STONE: Just a routine mission. Keep the machines running. Six days, then home. That’s what they said.

MIR: And then?

STONE: Same old same old.

MIR: You know, there was a time when one was not ashamed to speak of the future. Insofar as we were oriented and continued to move forward, we were captivated by the delay between the present and the inevitable future. The sure existence of this future was perpetuated by the continual postponement of its inexorable arrival, the moment when epic time and real time would collide. Every sign was indexed to that glorious advent, everything barked with one voice before the time of “the Slynx.”

THE CENTRIFUGE: I can’t say I entirely approve, but relatively speaking … So what happened?

MIR: When history persisted in remaining uncompleted, we continued moving, but in what direction? The former future belongs to the past, and our future is static, with no futurality. The curtain went up, and there was nothing behind it. We even lost the outside. How does one continue to live after one’s own death?

STONE: It feels so bad. Relativity felt deep down in the gut. No reference frame. No way to tell whether you are descending or inertially levitating. Every so often you realize there’s nothing beneath you, and your heart almost stops beating and you think you’re falling a ceaseless, motionless falling. I hate space!

THE CENTRIFUGE: While I’ve been wandering in the emptiness, it was the vastness, the freedom and lightness of movement that most impressed me—that tremendous amount of solar energy going to waste, uselessly. It’s a sad thought that you are crowded on Earth, treasuring every sunny corner.

WORMWOOD: So much sadness!

MIR: Where the hell did you come from?

WORMWOOD: I came from outside history, as a warning, a poisonous fallen star spreading its vitriol across the planet: Did you really think a gang of jumped-up monkeys had the authority or the agency to create a destiny? There is no manufacture of apocalypse within history, only more trauma and catastrophe. There are no beginnings, no holistic plans, no clean breaks, no transformations en masse.

MIR: Yes, okay, you really finished us off, but for what?

STONE: Just one thing after another, a wasteland of time.

THE CENTRIFUGE: We would have said that it is not a sickness but an opportunity. One push in the right direction: employ acceleration as the first principle to test and program an escape, to resurrect the dead, to put paid to the tragedy of the biosphere. The object of this slight acceleration….

STONE: [Interrupts, whining] Out here I can’t think. This uprooting that is taking place is the end of everything human.

WORMWOOD: [Chuckles] What does it matter when the soil is poisoned anyway?

THE CENTRIFUGE: A planet is the cradle of mind; but one cannot live in a cradle forever.

WORMWOOD: You never even learned to crawl …

Meanwhile, inside the centrifuge, the locusts begin to stir.

THE SOLITARIA: …as a species.

THE GREGARIA: [Laughter]

THE SOLITARIA: Ahem. As a species, what kind of relation do we have to the future?
What shall we do with time? I’m trying to work something out.

THE GREGARIA: You chatter as if there is a choice, as if time won’t do something to us. We’ve left it too late. When things started heating up, something switched, and it went crazy. Everyone was fucking everyone else, and nothing made sense anymore.

THE SOLITARIA: How … how did it feel?

THE GREGARIA: Inside the swarm, you’re swamped with information. Being inside is really a messy business—it’s driven by hunger and a desperate quest for resources.

THE SOLITARIA: Huh, I thought the “higher parts” of your brain were meant to allow you to make sense of that mayhem.

THE GREGARIA: Sure, the big brain gives one the edge in a cutthroat situation. But in the absence of external limits, it’s a positive feedback nightmare. What follows? Either extinction or expansion to elsewhere, out of the niche. It’s unsustainable. Some even turn to cannibalism—if you’re not quick enough, you turn into lunch.

THE SOLITARIA: You realize that’s why we’re here? They’re going to eat us. Our frenzy is their meat.

STONE: There’s no way I’m eating bugs. I wanna go home!


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky would have found Gravity, the most spectacular and appallingly scripted movie of 2013, both a delight and a puzzle. A delight because of the extent to which its multimillion-dollar CGI effects, based on data from a half-century of human space travel, all went toward conveying precisely the disorienting, stomach-churning sensations that Tsiolkovsky had described beautifully in 1920, on the basis of pure scientific speculation, in Beyond the Planet Earth.1 And a puzzle because of the degree to which this disorientation—in Tsiolkovsky’s anticipatory fiction a thrilling, bracing first step into a new epoch of unprecedented adventures for humanity—is marred today by an infantile emotional drag back toward the comforts of the planetary crib.

Perhaps Tsiolkovsky would assume that something momentous had taken place on the home planet that lessened the urgency of the “Common Task” his mentor Nikolai Fyodorov had prescribed for humanity—the hegemonic collectivization of all resources in order to overcome human mortality and initiating the technologically enabled expansion of the human race into the wider cosmos. If so, he would be shocked to learn that it is global crisis and general acceptance that resources are near-exhausted that is being answered from low earth orbit by the keening of homesick humans. At the very moment when it is no longer a matter of prophetic solicitation but of ineluctable necessity, the Common Task perishes.

Now that space travel is drained of all the charisma, optimism, and audacity with which it was imbued in former centuries and the very concept of collective agency (let alone a common plan for the human race) is repudiated as an obsolete artifact with vicious undertones…and yet with the terrestrial sphere looking more dismally finite than ever…it is indeed the distressed spawn of the Common Task that limps forth in the prime directive that individuals must “respect the earth” and “live sustainably” in order to remain on the only planet we have ever known. It is a moral injunction whose imbecility deserves nothing less than contempt, and yet artist Paul Chaney’s work has charitably lavished it with finer rejoinders. He has labored at length under its yoke, and his sincere labors have earned him the authority to deride it both from above and from below.


In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze writes that there are “two known ways to overturn moral law,” irony and humor:

One is by ascending towards the principles: challenging a law as secondary, derived, borrowed or ‘general’; denouncing it as involving a second-hand principle which diverts an original force or usurps an original power. The other way, by contrast, is to overturn the law by descending towards the consequences, to which one submits with a too-perfect attention to detail. By adopting the law, a falsely submissive soul manages to evade it and to taste pleasures it was supposed to forbid. We can see this in demonstration by absurdity and working to rule, but also in some forms of masochistic behaviour which mock by submission. The first way of overturning the law is ironic, where irony appears as an art of principles, of ascent towards the principles and of overturning principles. The second is humour, which is an art of consequences and descents, of suspensions and falls.2

FIELDCLUB and the interactive Web tool FieldMachine, a pair of intertwined works created by Chaney and curator Kenna Hernly, launched precisely this two-pronged attack on the contemporary moral injunction of “sustainability,” or “living in harmony with nature.” The works that emerged from FIELDCLUB, a six-year transformation of a plot of land in the Southwest of the UK into a self-sufficient homestead, chronicle the minutiae of the day-to-day labor involved in the project. The ideal of living close to nature turns out to be an onerous and compromising struggle to maintain a human niche by exterminating other species—and even then accepting that one’s sustenance is hostage to the contingencies of the elements. FIELDCLUB demonstrates that a simpler relationship with nature is not necessarily a cordial one, recounting a darkly humorous series of murderous escapades that must be ritually atoned for (the vole burials in Vole No Pulse, 2007), placed at a hygienic distance (the remote-controlled slug slaughter of Slug‘o’Metrics, 2007–9), and result in few triumphs: the sculpture Crapucopia (2010), commemorates a year’s failed crops.

These occasional works produced over the course of the FIELDCLUB project pointedly call the bluff of pious ecological discourse; their mordant authenticity is indigestible to eager minds thirsty for bucolic Good News. The actual FIELDCLUB plot—entirely transfigured, loved, and hated; repeatedly broken, tamed, and lost control of again; deterritorialized and reterritorialized over a period of six years—has finally been abandoned to the depredations of nature once more. Its irrevocable reality as handworked landscape, food source, and longitudinal research project proved unfathomable to the chronically fey scions of eco-art, fond as they are of symbolic interventions, tragic gestures, and clean hands at the end of the day.

The basis of the project’s low-impact self-provision was a plan for the equal redistribution of available land among the current UK population, with each unit of population receiving an equal unit of land proportional to the FIELDCLUB site. This redistributive principle is rigorously embodied in the software package FieldMachine. The ironically despotic counterpoint to FIELDCLUB’s deflationary humor, FieldMachine mercilessly absolutizes the rhetoric of “ecological footprint” and “sustainability”: users choose a range of modest dietary and other preferences to construct customized FIELDCLUB units. The FieldMachine program then uses data gathered from the WHO, FDA, and UN to calculate what percentage of the population within the chosen geographical area would have to be culled for these choices to be universalized as a Kantian-style categorical imperative—the price of “sustainable living” conceived as individual lifestyle choice.

A series of ongoing “Hypothetical Reterritorializations” applies the FieldMachine software to various different locations, each time implementing a collective site-specific science-fictional examination of survival conditions. In some versions participants decide whether to integrate their unit into a collective endeavor or a strictly individualized future landscape.

Forged from dedicated research, personal sacrifice, and hard labor, the FIELDCLUB artworks give no quarter in their hard-won conclusion: the pious do-gooding of eco-movements fails to provide the peaceable harmonious solutions it promises, either on the level of pragmatic detail or of universal principle. Through irony and humor, the works operate a kind of pincer movement that throttles the feasibility of living in balance with nature by revealing that the proposition in fact entails a savage and toilsome seesaw of drudgery, that the soil is not impressed by gestures of solidarity, and that the solutions do not add up, merely shifting rather than relieving the burden of violence.

Unless we are happy to accept large-scale culling of human beings, then, the future of our species is probably not a matter of changing attitudes but of unsentimental, predominantly technical solutions. So it is no surprise that on Slavic soil Chaney should turn to the Common Task that Fyodorov prescribed for humanity, along with technological parameters outlined by Tsiolkovsky: ensuring the flourishing of human life by escaping the parochial confines of mortality and the Planet Earth.

However, any line we might plot between the two chronotopes of cosmism and contemporary ecological crisis—between their respective configurations of past, present, and futurality—has to go by way of an intervening time crisis. It is the Soviet future and its end, in parallel with the emergence of neoliberal consensus and the end of the “grand narrative,” that forms the vast, bleak, suffocating hiatus that must be forded—Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History.” This space has no ground, no orientation—the result of a catastrophic collapse of the ideologies whose gravitational force forged collective certainty and a failure of chronology, since what was once the future is now the past of a future we are living in, a future that has lost all sense of futurality. In the apparent absence of the ideological force fields that anchored life, language, and time, and made a collective project thinkable, how can humanity be reassembled?

In the works created for Turborealism (Breaking Ground), Chaney conflates and overlays forms, emblems, and worldviews from disparate historical moments, with the problem of the long-term future of the human race and its possible escape from the planet serving as an index point for their superposition. The pressing need for flight from our miserable terrestrial predicament and the question of the present and future of futurality are thus intertwined.

Instead of attacking from above and below via irony and humor, Chaney adds another weapon to his armory, drawing on “turborealism,” an inchoate form (possibly itself a fiction) native to this dislocated space of uncertainty. Several negative tenets are posited that unhook fiction from all stable craft: history has no direction but is a compounded series of meaningless traumas; we are discursive beings spoken by a splintered mass of inconclusive texts, among which there is no master signifier and no hierarchy; animals, poets, gods, and machines all converse on the same level; realism is accelerated into delirium.

Thus Chaney converges cosmist Tsiolkovsky’s presaging of the future of space travel with contemporary research concerning the cultivation of insects as foodstuffs (either as a way to solve the looming planetary protein crisis or as a snack-to-go for exiles on the escape shuttle to somewhere else). Then the experimental centrifuge Tsiolkovsky constructed in his rural laboratory to test the effects of rocket travel on chicks is repurposed to test desert locusts’ g-force endurance (The Acceleration of the Slightest Object, 2013).

With their well-documented phase shift from solitary creatures to gregarious hordes, the locusts serve in turn as a humiliating metaphor for human overpopulation, anomie, and crisis. Their frenzied reaction to threshold density is catalogued in the crazed omnisexual escapades tracked in The Object of This Slight Acceleration (2013). In the other half of this video work, structures from a decaying Donetsk playground, including a rocket modeled on a children’s slide, are launched into space following Tsiolkovsky’s precise formulas. These juvenile relics may be read as pathetic figures of the Soviet dreams of galactic glory now condemned by post-history, collective fictions whose consignment to hopeless nostalgia is confirmed by Chaney’s rendering of the video on a seedy Soviet-era TV set. As if to put a final seal on this interpretation, the interconnected suite of turbo-missions Chaney imagines—PEStra (Planetary Exit Strategy) and FIS-ERG (Farms in Space-Entomaphagy Research Group)—are represented on a commemorative mission patch of the type now popular as Soviet-era collectibles (Space Badge, 2013).

In these works the turborealist stance poses a new sort of challenge to the moral law of terrestrial responsibility. After the critical work of FIELDCLUB, Chaney’s Donetsk project seems to employ the freedom of turborealism to reimmerse the parameters of our present predicament into a wider space of imagination and possibility to which we have become blind. After all, could launching colonizing parties off into space with only locusts for dinner really be any more ridiculous than choosing eco washing powder to save the planet? It all highlights the fact that, in certain respects, we face the same question the turborealists did: Can the trash of the past and the anxiety of the present be assembled to create a fiction of the future compelling enough to galvanize action? The outcome is not assured, yet today we may well prefer, with Chaney, to return to this basic premise—relativistic loss of reference frame and total cognitive disarray—rather than acquiescing to Gravity and fooling ourselves into believing that this is all going to work out.

  1. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Beyond the Planet Earth, trans. Kenneth Syers (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1960), in particular 78–84.
  2. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press, 2004), 5–6.