Afternoon Dust

Precarity, risk, and the domesticity of war

Across town at Grand Union, They Are Here (Harun Morrison and Helen Walker) have established a Precarity Centre with an interdisciplinary programme of talks, videos, performances, and installation exploring the theme of precarity. Half of the gallery space is taken up by an enormous floor-to-ceiling sculpture by Ioanna Pantazopoulou, which resembles a precariously-stacked pile of giant Flumps. Helene Kazan’s stop-frame animation ‘Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989’ is on display on a tiny tablet screen behind the office, and the artist dropped by last night to deliver a performance lecture that gave further insight into her practice and her perspective on the subject of precarity.

Kazan’s lecture discussed the development of Morrison shelters, reinforced indoor table-like structures that were distributed to low-income households by the British Government during the Second World War to protect civilians from bombing raids. The shelters were designed by John Baker according to his entirely new and unconventional theory of plastic deformation. What Kazan discovered, by dropping a stack of concrete slabs onto a Morrison shelter in a reconstruction of tests done to demonstrate the design’s validity, was that the shelters were not as effective as Baker claimed they were: her (unoccupied) shelter was completely obliterated by the falling slabs.

This could have remained simply a story of one man’s hubris endangering the lives of thousands, but Kazan dug deeper, drawing out how architectural changes such as the Morrison shelter (and the criss-crossed masking tape applied to the kitchen window of her family home in Lebanon to prevent the glass from shattering in the event of shelling) had the effect of priming and activating domestic spaces for warfare, becoming material manifestations of risk. Architectural design acts as a way of mapping potential futures, as a set of pre-emptive mitigations aimed at minimising the impact and likelihood of possible violence. Violence, or its future spectre, becomes part of the very fabric of the home, inevitably changing its meaning through the interventions designed to protect it. Underlying these apparitions are often imbalances of knowledge and power.

Kazan touched briefly on the topic of climate change and designing for disasters, which got me thinking what the Morrison shelters of our current and near-future climate struggle will look like. Will people in the UK live in homes with foundations that can be raised and lowered in the event of flooding? Will homes in southern Europe adopt complex dust filtration systems as the land desertifies? And yet, it seems that climate risk has yet to become materially incorporated into our domestic spaces: in the UK, conventional homes continue to be built on flood plains many commuter miles from work, and flood defences consist of building ever-higher (yet discretely hidden) walls around places that simply aren’t going to be there in fifty years. Maintaining the reassuring traditional appearance of normality seems to be the design priority; Kazan’s domestic images speak rather of threat, of uncertainty, and, perhaps, of fears confronted.

Helene Kazan

They Are Here

The Precarity Centre at Grand Union