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.