Mutable Matter will be hosting its first workshop this year, generously supported by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant and Warwick Social Theory Centre. The workshop, entitled ‘Cosmos & Crisis: interdisciplinary conversations’ will be taking place in late Summer/early autumn. More details coming soon!
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: Hearing Landscape Critically
This looks really good, especially the focus on sound an politics.
Call for Papers
Hearing Landscape Critically: Music, Place, and the Spaces of Sound
Stellenbosch University (South Africa)
9-11 September 2013
‘We live in densely storiated landscapes [… there are] song lines,
if you will, joining place to place.’
Landscapes are divided and dissonant sites of private and collective being. They bear traces of present, past and future ambitions, injustices, and interventions. And yet, their grammars and sounds, whether intimate, commodified or instrumentalised, push at the limits of theory and representation and simultaneously construct systems of aesthetic, ideological, historical and political appropriation.
The second meeting of the ‘Hearing Landscape Critically’ network (Stellenbosch University, 9-11 September 2013) is concerned with finding ways to articulate and listen to landscape that challenge established patterns of cognition and intervention, and which probe the archival and everyday silences and ruptures exacerbated by social, political and intellectual intervention. Following the first meeting at Oxford University, May 2012, the Stellenbosch symposium marks the continuation of an inter-disciplinary and inter-continental project addressing the intersections and cross-articulations of landscape, music, and the spaces of sound. Whilst this symposium aims to bring together a wide-ranging set of subjects and disciplinary approaches, contributions concerned with the unique dynamics of music and sound in (South) African landscapes are especially welcome.
The following themes are envisaged as central concerns:
– Spaces and sounds of power and politics: interpreting reservation, academy, capital, legitimation;
– Spaces and sounds of contestation: how landscapes suture and structure struggles of class, nationality, education, and race;
– Philosophical approaches to the spaces of sound: transcendental metaphors, the nature/culture debate, ontologies and epistemologies, non-representational theories of musical and social space;
– Spaces and sounds of transformation/devastation: ‘junk space’, inter-state freeways, sprawling suburbs, shopping malls, non-places;
– Landscape as utopia, dystopia or heterotopia;
– Urban landscapes, or landscapes that confound simple urban/rural divides.
Prof. Richard Taruskin (Department of Music, University of California, Berkeley)
Prof. Cherryl Walker (Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University)
All proposals should be emailed to email@example.com (size limit = 5MB) by 18 January 2013. Please include name, affiliation (if applicable), postal address, E-mail address and AV requirements on a separate cover sheet.
Individual papers (20 minutes) – abstract of no more than 300 words.
Panel sessions – describe individual papers and overarching theme in no more than 500 words.
Alternative formats – describe your proposal (i.e. performance, round table, film discussion, or whatever it may be) in no more than 500 words.
Unfortunately, funding for travel will NOT be generally available for delegates. However, there may be some funds for student travel bursaries. If you would be interested in this, please indicate so on your cover sheet.
More info can be found here.
Just spent three days at the RGS/IBG Annual Conference. This year, the programme featured a mind-boggling amount of art-related sessions and papers – Mobile Geographies of Art, Art and Science, Art and Geopolitics etc – so I couldn’t help but check out what all the art-craze was about. So far, I have determined two directions: the first one could be described as ‘disciplinary soul-searching’ and the second could be described as ‘art and politics’.
The first one seemed very concerned with methods: what do art and geography have in common, what is being done differently, and what can collaborations, trans/inter/cross-disciplinarity sensitise us to? (A useful overview on this subject recently came out in Geography Compass, written by Harriet Hawkins). Such discussions also seem to follow very much in the same vein of much recent art and science discussions, which often look at art as either producing form/beauty/harmony/emotive responses/the sublime or critique/alternative imaginaries.
The second mode was mainly present in the ‘Art and Geopolitics’ session, which touched more intensely on the question what kind of impact art has on the shaping of political imaginaries. Amongst other things, it looked at the ways some political art travels across times, spaces and audiences and at potential artistic tactics for intervention. One of the questions that came up in the last session – the panel discussion – was about appropriation and counter appropriation. What can artists do if their tactics keep being appropriated by the very systems they are critiquing? Would counter-appropriation be an appropriate tactic?
According to the person next to me ‘The Conquest of Cool’ by Thomas Franck is a must-read on this topic. Not having come across it before, I had to draw on another book, namely Régis Debray‘s ‘Du bon usage des catastrophes’ (On the good use of catastrophes). The latter book comprises a sarcastic manual on ‘how to become a prophet’ in times of crisis, ultimately attempting to raise consciousness regarding the instrumentalisation of endemic problems by those wishing to gain power. The ‘Art and Geopolitics’ afternoon discussion at the conference made me wonder whether someone should take up Debray’s manual to attempt an art project of epic proportions: to become a kind of ‘counter-prophet’ as an anti-dote to those who are in it ‘for real’. Of course such a thing can go horribly wrong, considering what kind of artists harboured delusions of grandeur in the past, but I find it an interesting thought nevertheless. Imagine some president turned round and told you it was all an art project. Personally, I’d hope that his/her rule would be a little more inspiring…
What I found a little perplexing was how little the amount and form of the art-related papers presented were at the centre of debate. Similarly perplexing was the apparent lack of attention in debates to wider links from current funding politics (art being in the situation where it is having its funding withdrawn, but, at the same time, is supported as part of interdisciplinary projects) to their reflection of the current intellectual climate.
It seems to me that the popularity of art is tied to the desire to generate counter-strategies in the current political situation, whether these aim at securing financial security against all odds through seeking links with better funded disciplines/ combination of lesser funded disciplines or building resistance or impact ‘in the world’ through new kinds of ‘methods’. The danger seems to be that if the wider picture is not constantly kept in mind, a preoccupation with art can end up as a distraction from the issues it is hoped to help with. To bring back the ‘fear art’ image from a few blog posts ago (see above), the current level of interest in art makes me ask myself: if art is feared by those in power for its potential as an agent of change, are we aware enough of this power?