Earthly Poison

arsenicPhoto: Anton Kats 

1972. Bangladesh is a new state emerging out of a national liberation war and a cyclone. Inspired by the Green Revolution, UNICEF undertook a major public health engineering project, drilling millions of hand pumps aimed at providing safe drinking water, and over subsequent years sinking private tube wells became normative practice. Although considered a major humanitarian success, it exposed a significant part of the population to ground water aquifers rich in arsenic.

Several decades on, the slow environmental violence continues to unfold at a population level in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. The same state and humanitarian players implicated in its complex causality are now charged with the responsibility of dealing with its consequences. An earthly poison unleashed with a violent forensic history.  

The two-day seminar is organized by Nabil Ahmed and the Centre for Research Architecture/Forensic Architecture, in collaboration with The Showroom, bringing together leading STS scholars, lawyers, geologists, historians and philosophers. It aims to address contemporary debates around large-scale arsenic poisoning in the Bengal delta, and its implications for new forms of spatial activism and law in the global South.

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Friday May 24th 2013
The Cockpit, Auditorium
Gateforth Street, London NW8 8EH [map]

10:30 – 11:00 Introduction Nabil Ahmed

11:00 – 12:30 Elemental passions
Arsenic, a chemical found in minerals, played a crucial role in the emergence of forensic science. While it had been widely used as a homicidal agent up until the 19th century since its administration left no discernible trace as to cause of death, arsenic eventually entered the courts as a murder weapon with the advent of forensic medicine. Political poisonings committed with arsenic, such as that of Simon Bolivar, became textbook cases for the study of forensic toxicology. This panel addresses the history of lethal poisoning by arsenic and highlights its significance within the advent of forensic science.  

Speakers: Andrew Meharg
Respondent: Godofredo Perreira

13:30 – 15:00 Pharmakon
Arsenic has long been known for its preservative and medicinal properties since as early as the 12th century. Today it continues to be the active ingredient in several lifesaving medicines. As both a lethal ‘poison’ and ‘remedy’, arsenic’s double and contradictory usage provides an ideal example of Jacques Derrida’s notion of the “pharmakon”. Inspired by a reading of Plato’s Pharmacy, this panel extends the discussion to the realm of politics and asks: How does one operate politically when the very actions conceived as curatives or humanitarian interventions so often produce harmful and even disastrous consequences.

Speakers: Howard Caygill
Respondent: James Burton

15:00 – 16:30 Earthly poison: A seminar with Sheila Jasanoff
While advances in toxicological science have grown, there have been negligible advances with respect to the attribution of legal and social responsibility for the mass poisoning of an entire population in Bangladesh—namely the arsenic contamination of its ground waters due to the drilling of millions of tube wells. Building upon the foundations set out by Sheila Jasanoff’s seminal research into the Bhopal industrial disaster, this panel questions what can we learn from such environmental-chemical catastrophes, especially when the impacts upon human and environmental ecologies are so thoroughly entangled? How might the interdisciplinary approach of science and technology studies, which locates itself at the intersection between law, politics, and policy help us to make sense of events unfolding in Bangladesh, West Bengal and elsewhere in the global south?

Speaker: Sheila Jasanoff 

Respondent: Susan Schuppli, Eyal Weizman

17:00 – 18:00 The Cockpit, Studio 1, Screening
Radical Meteorology 
Nabil Ahmed. 2013. Video. 5′ 53”, 3’46’’ and 4’12’’


Saturday May 25th 2013
Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths

10:30 Reception 

11:00 – 13:00 Spatial mapping to seeking justice
Geologists and geochemists have extensively sampled the soil, sediments, mud and water of the Bengal basin in an attempt to map the genesis, movement and eruptions of arsenic. This panel explores fieldwork as analytical spatial practice that both maps the complex pathways of environmental poisoning in Bangladesh and West Bengal and plots these contested medico-legal geographies within the spaces of the juridical. 

Speakers: John McAurther, Peter Atkins, Shubhaa Srinivasan

Respondent: Adrian Lahoud 

14:30-16:00 Closing session

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Sheila Jasanoff
Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. A pioneer in her field, she has authored more than 100 articles and chapters and is author or editor of a dozen books, including Controlling Chemicals, The Fifth Branch, Science at the Bar, and Designs on Nature. Her work explores the role of science and technology in the law, politics, and policy of modern democracies, with particular attention to the nature of public reason. She was founding chair of the STS Department at Cornell University and has held numerous distinguished visiting appointments in the US, Europe, and Japan. Jasanoff served on the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and as President of the Society for Social Studies of Science. Her grants and awards include a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship and an Ehrenkreuz from the Government of Austria. She holds AB, JD, and PhD degrees from Harvard, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Twente.

Shubhaa Srinivasan
Shubhaa Srinivasan qualified as a Barrister in 1998 and practised in Malaysia as an Advocate and Solicitor until 2000. Shubhaa completed her Masters in Law in 2002 at SOAS, University of London, and joined Leigh Day’s international and grou claims team in 2003. She acted in an environmental claim brought by 52 Colombian farmers against a subsidiary of the multi-national BP plc. This case was successfully mediated in Bogata, Colombia in June 2006. She is currently part of a team representing a number of Iraqis allegedly unlawfully abused by British Forces in Iraq. In addition, she is also currently representing over 50 Colombian farmers in a second wave of environmental claims against a BP plc subsidiary.

Godofredo Pereira
Godofredo Pereira is an architect based in Porto and London. He holds a MArch from the Bartlett and is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths. His research Territorial Fetishism investigates the role of techno-science in contemporary political and epistemological conflicts over territory in Latin America. He teaches History and Theory at the MArch Urban Design program at the Bartlett, is co-editor of ‘Detritos’ a journal of art and critical theory ( and editor of the book Savage Objects, INCM, 2012 (

John McAurthur
Prof. John McArthur has been on the staff of Earth Science, at UCL, since 1978. He has been intermittently active in arsenic research since 1998. His main current interest in As is to explain the spatial distribution of As-pollution in groundwater in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. Other interests are in chemostratigraphy and palaeo-oceanography.

Eyal Weizman
Eyal Weizman is the Director of the Centre for Research Architecture (Department of Visual Cultures – Goldsmiths, University of London). Since 2007 he is a founding member of the architectural collective DAAR in Beit Sahour/Palestine. Weizman has been a professor of architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and has also taught at the Bartlett (UCL) in London and the Staedel School in Frankfurt. He lectured, curated and organised conferences in many institutions worldwide. His books include Mengele’s Skull (with Thomas Keenan at Sterenberg Press, 2012), Forensic Architecture (dOCUMENTA13 notebook, 2012), The Least of all Possible Evils (Nottetempo 2009, Verso 2011), Hollow Land (Verso, 2007), A Civilian Occupation (Verso, 2003), the series Territories 1,2 and 3, Yellow Rhythmsand many articles in journals, magazines and edited books.

Peter Atkins
Peter Atkins was an undergraduate and postgraduate in the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. He then taught at the University of Leicester and the University of Wales, Swansea before joining the staff at Durham in 1980. He is currently a Professor of Geography. His main research interests are the geographies of food and drink. The main approach throughout his career has been historical, and he has recently been developing interdisciplinary and international perspectives with colleagues in the International Commission for Research on European Food History. Peter is Senior Vice-President of the ICREFH. In addition to the historical work, Peter has maintained strong links with South Asia, especially Bangladesh. Research here has recently included work on problems of drinking water quality.

Howard Caygill
Professor Howard Caygill is a professor of modern European philosophy at the Centre for Research in Modern European philosophy (CRMEP), the leading centre for postgraduate level study and doctoral research in Continental Philosophy in the UK at Kingston University. He has published extensively in the field of the history of philosophy and aesthetics. His books include The Art of Judgment, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience and Levinas and the Political.

Andrew Meharg
Andrew Meharg is Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen where he studies and teaches on the impact of pollutants on the environment. His particular interest is how arsenic interacts with plants, animals and humans. In this capacity he has advised national and international government and aid bodies. Andrew has published numerous academic papers, book chapters and popular press articles on his research. He is the author of Venomous Earth: How Arsenic caused the world’s worst mass poisoning and Arsenic and rice.

Nabil Ahmed
Nabil Ahmed is a writer and artist. His works have been presented and published at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) in Toronto, 2012 Taipei Biennale, Centre for Possible Studies at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Media Field Journal and Third Text. He is co-founder of Call & Response, a sound art collective and curatorial project based in London. He is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London where he also teaches.

James Burton
James Burton studied English at Cambridge University and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London where he completed a PhD in 2008. He is currently Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany where he is producing a book on the concept of metafiction as a central category in contemporary cultural theory and experience. He is also working on another book called The Philosophy of Science Fiction.

Susan Schuppli
Susan Schuppli is a practicing artist and cultural theorist who received her doctorate in 2009. Previously she participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program and completed her MFA at the University of California San Diego. She has taught media in several universities throughout Canada including the Visual Arts Department at the University of Western Ontario where she was an Associate Professor in Studio. Her creative projects have been exhibited at The Kitchen in New York, the Brussels Biennal (Belgium), Artspace (Australia) and most recently at Museum London (Canada). She is on the editorial board of the journals SITE (Stockholm) and Second Nature (Melbourne) and is a member of the Photo-Lexic research group based in Tel Aviv. Parallel to these theoretical and practical inquiries is an ongoing examination of the relationship between architecture and media events. Articles related to this work include: “Forensic Architecture” in Post-Traumatic Urbanism (Architectural Design), “Improvised Explosive Designs” in Ambivalent Architectures (Borderlands), both from 2010; “Material Malfeasance” in Photoworks, 2011; and “Impure Matter” in Savage Objects 2012.

 Adrian Lahoud
Adrian Lahoud is an architect, urban designer and researcher. Through private practice, teaching and doctoral research, he explores the disputed, conflicting and often paradoxical transformation of cities. Adrian has nine years experience teaching in architecture and urban design programs. A regular contributor to academic and mainstream architectural publications, in 2010 he co-edited a special issue of Architectural Design titled Post-traumatic Urbanism featuring Slavoj Zizek. Forthcoming in 2012 are two books, Project for the Mediterranean and Spatial Organization in Architecture and the City, a diagrammatic analysis of experimental architectural and urban design work. His professional experience has moved across a broad range of scales and disciplines including architecture, art, urban design and landscape. Most recently his work has been exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial (2011) and in Korea at the Design Biennale Gwanju (2011) co-curated by Ai Weiwei.