The heartbreak of TIA

The sun is in the gallery. This is not in itself a surprise. We knew empirically that the sun would come in when we uncovered the windows, given that the space is on the south side of the building. Besides, if we doubted our own perception, the software proved it. If Ecotect says the sun will do this in December and that in June, then it must be true. We now trust our instruments, our technology, more than our own perceptions. But the sun is really in the gallery...and really bright on these first days of winter when it can’t muster enough energy to get very high in the sky. Thus the end wall touch screen is washed out in the morning, and entry wall is washed out in the late afternoon. At midday the future looks so bright, you could wear shades. Now we’re trying to figure out what to do to mitigate the problem...what a nuisance.

Stop that (slap)...it’s neither problem nor nuisance! That was just a rhetorical set up. It is what it is: the change of seasons gradually requesting of us humans a little bit of accommodation. When we realized that our exhibition content gave us the freedom to uncover the windows, we also accepted the responsibility to attend to the constantly changing consequences. This is the existential heart of the sustainability contract: with freedom comes an equal measure of responsibility. It’s two for one, a package deal, BOGO. It’s easy to forget that contract, because the terms of collection can be very subtle. You are free to set your thermostat wherever you like...but don’t forget the responsibility you share for climate change. You are free to live wherever you like...but remember that you are responsible for all consequences in equal measure to your freedom. You are free to open up your gallery to the southern light and warmth, but don’t forget that there will be consequences for legibility, interactive operability, widely differing experiences of the exhibition. And oh yes, there will be constant tinkering.

We considered all sorts of strategies early on and decided to wait and see what would happen. It’s not like we didn’t know—aforementioned Ecotect, and empiricism—but we couldn’t entirely predict how it would really be. We had no cultural memory of a year in light for that space in the building, so each day is a new experience. And yesterday, the first day of winter, it seemed about time to implement one of the shading strategies. We’ll be putting scrims on the windows in the first and last bay and then revisit the issue around the vernal equinox.

There’s something wonderful about thinking in these big seasonal chunks, these ancient milestones of solar time that lie deep under every calendar and cultural ritual on the planet. The winter solstice, Saturnalia, Christmas, Hanukah, et al., all cling to this dark time that so worried our primitive ancestors. It’s getting dark...too dark to see. Didn’t this happen last year? But the sun came back, and everything was okay. What did we do last year to make that happen? Well, we better do it again. The answer to that question is the origin of myth, ritual, and the whole package of communicating, appeasing, and cajoling the forces greater than ourselves.

There are plenty of smaller rituals that our parents and grandparents used to practice seasonally and they weren’t all aimed at the gods. Shuttering and un-shuttering windows, putting up and taking down awnings, planting and harvesting the garden, even spring and fall cleaning—all these are rituals of adjustment to the seasons. How few of these do we do now? Why? It’s not as if the solar system itself shifted to a low maintenance schedule. No, it’s us. We think we don’t have to, that all of those activities are somehow old fashioned. Our buildings now are often smarter than we are. They adjust the lights or heat on some mysterious electronic schedule in secret communication with the atomic clock. A smart thermostat never lets you shiver. The truth is we are suffering, individually and collectively, from TIA: Technology Induced Amnesia.

A heartbreaking chronic condition, TIA manifests itself in a spectrum of symptoms which vary from patient to patient. Like obesity and happiness, TIA is a social contagion, spreading rapidly through networks. Onset of TIA is marked by involuntary reaching for calculators to perform operations involving fractions and percentages. Later, spelling ability vanishes along with memory for phone numbers. More insidious are the subtle losses which can easily remain hidden from others: affixing shutters to building exteriors and forgetting the hinges; opening windows when the heat comes on too strong; driving to get a quart of milk. Fortunately, there is treatment for TIA and it requires nothing more than renewing the existential contract with the environment. The math and spelling problems, unfortunately, appear to be irruversable.

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