This year, there has been an explosion of Anthropocene themed events: academic conferences, design shows and particularly art exhibitions, it seems. And there are more in the making: The Deutsches Museum in Munich is preparing the exhibition ‘Anthropocene – Nature and Technology in the Age of Humans’, the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute has announced a symposium entitled ‘Society in the Anthropocene’ and publishing giant Elsevier is launching an ‘Anthropocene’ journal in 2013.
What is the Anthropocene? The Anthropocene is not a fixed geological epoch as yet, but rather a proposal for one. Coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and popularised by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the term translates as ‘The Age of Man’ or ‘The Age of Humans’. It basically implies that humans have come to dominate geo-physical activity on Earth and are affecting phenomena such as the planet’s climate at an unprecedented level. So far, scientists have not been able to agree on a date when the Anthropocene is supposed to have started: with the industrial revolution and its emission/population spike – or with the invention and proliferation of agriculture? I am not sure what exactly was submitted to the Geological Society in London in 2008, but whatever it was, the verdict is still out. In any case, the concept is increasingly gaining traction in popular discourse.
Why am I interested in this? First of all, most geographers are keeping an eye on the debate, because that’s their job: to keep up with what’s going on with our planet and how we (or other creatures) might deal with this information (e.g. migrate, change government, die out, adopt a new philosophy or life-style, change breeding patterns, do geo-engineering etc). But within this interest, there are obviously different areas that geographers are looking at. As I also teach in art and design, I am particularly invested in how artists and designers are engaging with the Anthropocene. Again, there is a huge diversity of creative projects. Some are more commercially orientated, in that they seek to take advantage of the potential new requirements of a new epoch. Others are more theoretical, for instance, redirection of architectural interest towards a double bind of land and form. And still others are overtly political, in trying to prompt a rethinking and remaking of current ways of living. (Will the frame of the Anthropocene help in this endeavour?)
What interests me most, at the moment, is the navigation between two areas: the geo-political, by which I mean the future of global politics and their response to planetary changes, and what at many events has been called the ‘geo-poetic’: ways of relaying the vast spatio-temporalities implicit in thinking geologically. When artists and other people produce Anthropocene-themed work, these areas often intersect, with varying emphases. It appears to be very much the same scenario as with, for instance, exhibitions on new technologies or environmental issues which fall into the category of ‘invisible risk’: artwork, computer games or other media trying to make tangible the scales we cannot experience (whether this is the atomic or the global scale), the causalities and consequences we cannot grasp (how do pesticides end up in Antarctic penguins? How come we cannot prove that leukemia cases near nuclear powerstations are causally related?) or the future trajectories we could help shape (e.g. the difficulty of taking action for far future intergenerational justice).
Indeed, a theme that unites the majority of Anthropocene art and design based events is the capacity of these fields to ‘sensitise’ their audiences to their new role as a geological actant. As the artists from Smudge Studio put it, through their exhibitions they wished to make people aware that ‘geologic time is not composed of us – we are composed of it’. Many other examples were described in symposia such as ‘The Geologic Turn’ (organised by Etienne Turpin at the University of Michigan) or ‘The Geological Turn’ (organised by artist Gabo Guzzo with London’s Banner Repeater Gallery). These ranged from rocks as an object of scientific, philosophical and popular interest (e.g. Jane Hutton, D Graham Burnett, Edward Eigen), confetti cannons in which ‘each piece of paper matched to the colours of the brightest explosions in the universe’ (Katie Paterson’s 100 Billion Suns), the exponential curve as the new cultural meme (Seth Denizen) to the interactive creation of new representative diagrams for our era (Gabo Guzzo).
The question that poses itself for me could be phrased as: ‘what happens after all this sensitisation?’ From my previous work, I have inherited the following tension: on the one hand, I have become extremely cynical about the ability of creative practice/affective methods to facilitate change/action/re-thinking by itself. Other things around it have to happen. In my work on public engagement with nanotechnology, I found that no matter now much creative practice you embed, if the channels that recognise or can process the outcomes of these creative engagements are not in place, nothing much at all happens (and what these creative practices represent to the audiences involved, of course, plays another role, but that is the subject for another post/article). On the other hand, it can be argued that ‘poetic interventions’ can help gather people round an issue – and these people can then put on pressure so that these channels are put into place. Working with this tension, I am trying to think about ways that artists, designers, social scientists can productively engage with it, especially when called on to put together ‘official’ public engagements.
Rather than just looking at the interactions between art, politics and theory today, I am also guided in this endeavour by looking at theory-art relations at the turn of the last millennium, where people were wrestling with a change of world view brought on by a move from classical to non-classical physics and the transition from imperialist regimes to (democratic/totalitarian) nation states. At this time, the early and mid-20th-century, an explosion of creativity occurred, which also tried to bring into dialogue the geo-poetic and geo-political. The unifying theme of this time appears to have been the ‘inhuman’ of both matter and human interactions (I have started to explain this in my article ‘Negotiating the Inhuman: Bakhtin, Materiality and the Instrumentalisation of Climate Change, forthcoming in Theory, Culture and Society in March 2013), addressed by authors such as Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Simone Weil – and artists in all fields, from music to painting (Artaud, Brecht, Meyerhold, Schoenberg, Auden, Dali, Duchamp…). Often, close links existed between artists and theorists. Here, the question for me is: what can we learn from these past experiments? What can we learn as artists, theorists, public engagement practitioners?
I will post regular updates on the project, including relevant events and calls for submissions. Comments or e-mails are, as always, appreciated.
Image source: Ari Daniel Shapiro. Image Credit: Alexander Semenov.
Another interesting example of public engagement with the ‘invisible risk’ of climate change – and of one possible role of art-science projects – and all of this in just over five minutes:
‘In the ocean, a drama is playing out between two marine mollusks: sea butterflies–tiny swimming snails the size of a grain of sand (also known as Pteropods)—and the larger sea angel that preys on them. But it’s another drama, one on a global scale, that concerns marine biologist Gareth Lawson and sculptor Cornelia Kavanagh: the changing chemistry of our warming oceans. The scientist and artist are collaborating to bring that story to a wider audience in the hope of rewriting the ending. Ari Daniel Shapiro reports from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and New York City.’
You can listen to Ari’s podcast here.
Image Source: ESpRi-EPFL
I have just received an announcement of the Risk inSight exhibition, which is taking place at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (thanks to Gail Davies for this!). Similar to previously discussed exhibitions ‘nano’ and ‘Science + Fiction’, Risk inSight is also going to travel to other countries. Will try to find out which venues it is going to pass through. If anyone has any information on this, please let me know!
The aim of the exhibition, again, seems to be to make risks visible/tangible and to create dialogue. Here is an excerpt from the website:
‘Forecasting stock market crashes, simulating river flooding, controlling air traffic, building an Olympic stadium or refuge in the high mountains, burying nuclear waste, etc. All of these seemingly unrelated activities do, in fact, have one fundamental point in common: they all involve risk.
While risk is everywhere, must we live in fear of it? In response to the media hype surrounding each new “crisis”, this exhibition goes against the grain by asking “is living with risks really such a big deal?” From carelessness to panic and from zero-risk to disaster, this exhibition reflects on the notion of “risks” using different scenarios and highlights how and why risks play an increasingly important role in life in modern society.’
The exhibition will be broken down into four sections: Identifying, Living With, Discussing and Handling Risks and will feature a mixture of interactive art and ‘expert commentary’ from a variety of fields including science, geography, architecture and finance.
Risk inSight will open on 15 October 2012 (at 6pm) and close on 15 November.
Venue: Rolex Learning Centre, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
Opening hours: Mon-Fri: 10am – 6pm, Sat: 10am – 8pm.
More Details can be found on the website.
Catalogue coming soon.
This month I will be giving two presentations on and around the Mutable Matter project.
The first one, entitled ‘Articulating Matter – Reimagining Public Engagement with ‘Invisible Risk” will take place at the geography department at UCL on 7 June 2011 (Bedford Way, Room 113). The seminar will start at 2pm.
The second talk is at the ‘Visualisation’ conference at Southampton Solent. Below are the details for this event given to me by the university. I will talk about ‘Accessing the Invisible: the Politics of Inhuman Scales’.
Date: Tuesday 14 June 2011
Place: Solent Lecture Theatre, James Mathews Building, Southampton Solent University, High Street, Southampton
Time: 1.30 to 5.30 pm, followed by a Reception.
VISUALiSATION is FREE to students and staff of Solent University. For all others a fee of £5.00 is payable at the door. To reserve a place email Helen.email@example.com
Just went to see ‘Into Eternity’, Michael Madsen’s film about the Finnish nuclear waste repository ‘Onkalo’. I thought it was a great film that, for me, linked together a variety of things I had come across recently. Amongst other things these were: the Experimental Ruins workshop at UCL, Neal Stephenson’s book ‘Anathem’ that I finally finished reading, the Arts Catalysts’ ‘Atomic’ exhibition catalogue I came across, and the paper I’m currently writing about Mikhail Bakthin and his potential relevance to the debate around materiality in geography.
During the film, I had to think of a question someone asked during the last few minutes of the ‘Experimental Ruins’ workshop: can you have ‘future ruins’ – and what would they be? ‘Into Eternity’ seems to deal with exactly that. The film asks how we communicate the danger of the site to whoever comes across it between the time it is sealed until the time it is ‘safe’ – in approximately 100,000 years. The film’s strength, I find, lies in drawing out the clumsy ways in which this question is approached by the people in charge of the project: should art be used – and, if yes, what kind of art? Should warning markers with symbols be used or should the site be left to be forgotten so that no one will approach it in the future? How will future archaeologists deal with the ‘ruin’? Will there be archaeologists? Maybe another species will have evolved altogether? What level or kind of technology will they have? Will the dangerous waste perhaps be useful for them? As the main problem, it seems, emerges human curiosity – people may be particularly encouraged to ‘have a look’ if the site is marked as dangerous – similar to the explorers opening up the Egyptian tombs.
To me, the focus on human ‘cluelessness’ feels less like a statement that the project is in the wrong hands – that the authorities are rather naive about what could happen in 100,000. While this also plays a role, one gets the impression, that such questions would be (or are) equally clumsily approached by all of humanity. How are we dealing with a responsibility and other events stretched over such unimaginable timespans? This problem has also been pointed out by authors such as Barbara Adam (did Madsen read ‘Timescapes’ or ‘Future Matters’?), Nigel Clark (‘Inhuman Nature’) and Mikhail Bakthin (the ‘cosmic terror’ that humans experience from certain space-time scales and configurations). Like Adam, the film points to the enormous difficulties (impossibility?) of not only dealing with the spatialities, but especially the temporalities of our (less than?) sophisticated technological products and byproducts: the history of human civilisation only takes up a fraction of the time our dealings nuclear waste will demand of us. Throughout the film, the people working on the Onkalo project point out that they are placing the long-term danger in the care of the only example of such a long timespan they can relate to – the Finnish ‘bedrock’. Rock seems to undergo infinitesimal changes over thousands of years whereas the surface is permanently in flux – whether it is changes in climate, wars or the evolution of new species. The ‘universal scale’ waste is moved into a space that is operates differently and can ‘comprehend’ such scales. This is reflected in a joke the Onkalo officials share in front of the camera – that when they get to the bottom of the dig, they might find a copper barrel – left from a previous unknown civilisation.
Trailer for the book (!) ‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson
The film also made me think of Neal Stephenson’s science fiction epic (close to 1,000 pages!) ‘Anathem’. The novel is based on the ‘Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. In the world portrayed in most of the book, what we know as scientists and other academics (definitely philosophers – not sure if social scientists are allowed!), have been confined to monastery-like institutions where they are banned from undertaking empirical research. This way of life was imposed on them by the ‘saecular world’ after three occasions where research went horribly wrong on a large scale (the book suggests nanotechnology, genetic engineering and space-time manipulation). Some scholars, however, mastered the ability to move between worlds or parallel ‘narratives’ – and potentially even manipulate them. And this is how the civilisation in Stephenson’s book ends up dealing with nuclear waste: it is handed over to the scholars who are capable of switching to a narrative where physical damage from radiation does not exist. Translated into our current vocabulary: scientists/academics, ostracised from the rest of society, get to live on top of all sorts of hazardous leftovers of what previous generations of their kind conceived (there was actually an interesting review of ‘Anathem’ in the journal nature along this theme called ‘Imprisoned by Intelligence). Unlike in Onkalo, these hazards are kept in very primitive above ground facilities as their guardians do not need protection. In the story, most characters still understand what these hazards are, however, some hazards have morphed into legends such as a banned weapon merely known as the ‘Everything Killers’. One could argue that already now, in our world, we hardly know what exact hazards are being dealt with in our vicinity.
A theme that runs through ‘Into Eternity’ is the emphasis the ‘Onkalo’ officials place on protecting future beings that come across the site. In the Arts Catalyst’s ‘Atomic’ exhibition catalogue, the opposite theme is highlighted: As James Flint points out in the ‘Atomic’ catalogue, states withold information about certain kinds of hazards from not only their ‘enemies’, but also their citizens ‘even if their personal welfare was thereby put at risk’. While this statement alludes to the time of the Cold War, the more recent Arts Catalyst project Dark Places seems to continue this theme and raise the question what is currently concealed from us and why. Are we being endangered or protected or is there perhaps no such clear line? Again, the exploratory activities offered alongside the Dark Places exhibition seem to return to the theme of curiosity…
Excerpt from Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979)
One film that I would actually like to watch alongside ‘Into Eternity’ is ‘Stalker’, which got pointed out by a student in a recent group tutorial on science fiction portrayals of science. The film often seems to be portrayed as having predicted the desolation following events such as the Chernobyl disaster, thus inviting parallels between the mythic narrative of the film and the actual events. As artist-desiger John Coulthart goes as far as talking of the ‘Stalker meme’. One of his examples is the appropriating of the Stalker vocabulary and narrative: ‘scientists who study the forbidden region (and guides who take people there illegally) have referred to themselves as ‘stalkers”.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl computer game trailer
Further, a computer game based on the story imbues Chernobyl’s reactor hall (or an artifact within it) with the wish-granting abilities of the ‘Room’ – a central motif in ‘Stalker’. Further, a number of amateur short films based on the film as well as the computer game can be found on the net. On the basis on such examples, one could argue that Chernobyl is on its way to becoming one of the ‘temples’ mentioned in the Flint’s essay in ‘Atomic’… but not how it was intended by its builders.
This Saturday, Mutable Matter was invited (thanks Gail & Nicola!) to join a ‘Secrecy and Technology’ bus tour, led by artists from the Office of Experiments and facilitated by Artscatalyst, the John Hansard Gallery Southampton and SCAN as part of the Dark Places exhibition. I had travelled down the night before to stay at a friend’s house and, refreshed from cream-covered slices of Lee’s divine lemon cake, a surprisingly entertaining Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, a novel toothpaste experience and a good night’s sleep, we set off the following morning on our most surreal coach tour so far…
The tour was centred mostly around Cold War technology and targeted places such as Porton Down and Chilbolton Observatory. Unfortunately, we could not access most of these sites, but were able to come quite close with our coach while our tour guides supplied us with any information they managed to get their hands on from official facts to conspiracy theories. At one ‘prohibited place’ some of us even descended into a seemingly randomly placed & publicly accessible nuclear bunker.
At lunchtime, catering was provided at (thankfully not by?) the International School for Security and Explosives Education (ISSEE) who also supplied us with a short insight into their work. The ISSEE is on the grounds of the famous Chilmark quarries which were used as an ammunitions store for about fifty years from the 1930s, and recently became a commercial mine again. It was interesting to hear that the school does not only train explosives experts, but also medial professionals who have to deal with the physical and mental effects of bomb exposure.
The last stop was the Royal Signals Museum, which did not only provide a short history of military signalling, but also kitted out more than a few artists with survival gear…
For someone like me, who currently engages a lot with ‘invisible risk’, the tour added another dimension to this term. Our contribution to making these technologies invisible was brought more to the foreground than ever through the seamless running-into of fields, thick, moss-saturated vegetation, ‘banal’ everyday life and secret MOD-fenced spaces surrounded by a multitude of founded and unfounded rumours. It resulted in the question of how much of this invisibility is not just a ‘material condition’, but ‘man-made’. In the case of the particular sites we visited, how much was the invisibility fabricated by those wanting to keep what happens at these sites secret, and how much we play a part in fabricating this invisibility ourselves?
On the bus this led to discussions about how one should (or can) act around such sites as an individual or group. Demand access? Trust the government? Draw more attention to them as a form of vigilance? What alternatives are there to having such sites?
Being primarily attended by artists, another question on the tour was: what effect can art engaging with such sites have? The introduction to the Office of Experiments website actually reads: ‘the proper contribution of art to society is art’. Back to square one? Maybe the way to go really is, as the site further suggests, to (self-)experiment and follow the outcomes… any other suggestions?