Documenting the Invisible
- Side: 10-20
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18261/issn.1891-5760-2016-01-02-03
- Publisert på Idunn: 2017-02-23
- Publisert: 2017-02-23
Documenting the Invisible is a polemical text by curator and art historian Peter Ole Pedersen and visual artist Christian Danielewitz that examines the potential of documentary-based art to create useful aesthetic representations of ‘the Anthropocene’. The article is a result of the practice-based collaboration between Peter Ole Pedersen, Christian Danielewitz and fellow artist Anu Ramdas. Thus, it is both a description and reflection of their project Against the Grain – an artistic documentation and exhibition of the environmental crisis at Weikuang Dam in Inner Mongolia – and a more general discussion of the term ‘the Anthropocene’ with the challenges of representing it in art and photography, as well as visually representing phenomena like deep time and radioactivity. The article discusses Bruno Latour’s reflections on agency and the Anthropocene and, in relation, the affinity between documentary and fiction put forth by Jacques Rancière, in addition to Timothy Morton’s notion of the Hyperobject.Keywords: Documentary, Anthropocene, Visual Art, Environmental Catastrophe
Even if the material effects of nuclear bombs are most visible and spectacular, it may seem that, for visual art, a far greater challenge is the representation of radioactivity itself to the naked eye and senses. 1Gabrielle Decamous, «Nuclear Activities and Modern Catastrophes: Art Faces the Radioactive Waves», Artists and Scientists in Times of War, Leonardo 44, No. 2, 2011, p. 129.
When looking at the output in Scandinavian art the last couple of years, it is surprising how little attention is given to the intricate connections between technology and environment. Currently both of these subjects are well covered internationally. Just take a look at the number of exhibitions that focus on eco-art, and how often one is confronted with artworks which have as their focal point the technological developments that make new audio, visual or textual expressions possible as the creative work of the artist.2Here it would be far too comprehensive a task to account for this current development in contemporary art. Suffice to say, environmental issues have now become an integral part of most themes at important art biennales and exhibitions at larger museums concerned with modern art. Technology-based artworks have also become the main focus of many exhibitions, and are often the subject for a debate on what can now function as the creative and expressive material of the artist. Furthermore, an in-depth research into catastrophes and crises has found new interest within the academic world. All of these factors combined, it is interesting that not so many artists have chosen to examine the relations between technological developments and ecological crises. One worth mentioning, though, is digital poet and artist Johannes Heldén, who has focused his work on environmental issues in a digital context, see: http://johanneshelden.com A rarer occurrence is the type of art that examines how our use of technology interferes directly with the environment and, on a representational level, deals with the challenge of depicting that which now resides under the highly debated term ‘the Anthropocene’.
This text is the result of a practice-based collaboration between researcher and curator Peter Ole Pedersen and two Danish artists, Christian Danielewitz and Anu Ramdas. It is inspired by the different exchanges connected to the development of Thorium 232/Weikuang, a series of images created by the artists during and after two journeys to the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, more specifically to the highly polluted, radioactive Weikuang Dam near the city of Baotou.3To our knowledge the only other artistic project that deals with this comprehensive environmental catastrophe near Baotou is Rare Earthenware. This project is a collaboration between the travel initiative Unknown Fields Division, photographer Toby Smith, sculptor Kevin Callaghan and architect Christina Varvia. The main artistic output from this project is three ceramic vessels, each proportioned as traditional Ming vases and made from the amount of toxic waste produced by the manufacture of a smartphone, a laptop and the cell of a smart car battery. See: http://www.unknownfieldsdivision.com/summer2014china-aworldadriftpart02.html#7 Toby Smith, «Rare Earthenware: a journey to the toxic source of luxury goods», The Guardian, April 15, 2015. Email correspondences, discussions and practical planning of the exhibition Against the Grain produced the text you are now reading. This means it is based on both spontaneous impulses and deeper reflections, now written down, as a more fluid argument concerning the artistic representation of invisible material processes, reflection on the subject of the Anthropocene, and the function and use of documentations in the description and approach to this phenomenon.
Visual artists have been preoccupied with the notion of the immaterial and the invisible for quite some time. In the late 1960s, the American artist Robert Barry began producing artworks using a wide range of immaterial media, including electromagnetism, radio waves and ultrasonic sound – forms of energy that, as he noted, «exist outside the narrow arbitrary limits of our own senses». His Radiation Piece from 1969 incorporates a small amount of caesium-137, a radioactive isotope released into the atmosphere during nuclear tests and accidents. It has a half-life of 30 years, but continues to emit energy forever – although in ever-decreasing quantities.For Barry, who found ideas of nothingness and the void to be extremely potent, radiation was a means of evoking something immeasurable and without limit – the sublime realm of the unseen.
In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011, several younger artists began to develop works using radioactive material, but with a somewhat different and darker perspective. Fukushima has spawned a renewed interest in hazardous Cold War era locations such as Chernobyl and the former nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. In different ways, artists such as Susan Schuppli, Trevor Paglen, Taryn Simon, Hilda Hellström and Julian Charrière have made works with nuclear materials. However, these artists are not simply concerned with nuclear energy – their works seem to emanate from a sincere anxiety about the dystopic flipside of contemporary high-tech engineering and consumption, with pollution, contamination and huge piles of electronic waste. Simultaneously, there seems to be a growing and curious fascination, among artists, with minerals, stratigraphic records and the concept of deep time. This puts a further cultural historic perspective on the renewed concern about geology as an artistic field of interest. The pioneering earthworks of Robert Smithson, and his writings on geo-artistic politics, seem to be more relevant now than ever. In his essay «The Domain of the Great Bear», Smithson describes a particularly vivid mise-en-scène he encountered in 1966 at the Hayden Planetarium, which seems to predict the dark, ecological visions of the Anthropocene:
Vast monuments of total annihilation are pictured over boundless abysses or seen from dizzying heights. It is a bad-boy’s dream of obliteration, where galaxies are smashed like toys. Globes of «anti-matter» collide with «proto-matter,» billions and billions of fragments speed into the deadly chasms of space. Destruction builds on destruction; forming sheets of burning ice, violet and green, it all falls off into infinite pools of dust.4Robert Smithson, «The Domain of the Great Bear», Art Voices, autumn 1966
Locating the Anthropocene
Humans have had an irreversible impact on the planet since the development of agriculture. We have altered the land and the climate for millennia, but scientists from different fields disagree about the criteria marking the exact beginning of the Anthropocene. Ecologist Simon Lewis argues that colonialism, global trade and the desire for wealth and profits began driving Earth towards a new state, and he proposes the year 1610 as the entry point.5Simon Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, «Defining the Anthropocene», Nature vol. 519, 2014, pp. 171–180. Others suggest that the invention of the coal powered steam engine and the release of artificial fertilizers in the 19th century are the demarcating indicators. However, the most popular notion is that humanity truly entered the era in 1950, coinciding with the onset of the nuclear age. This notion is based on the argument that the main man-made contribution to the exposure of the planet and its populations has come from the testing of nuclear weapons between 1945 and 1980. Measurements of radionuclides dispersed in the atmosphere and deposited in the surface of the earth show a sudden spike in plutonium debris around the mid-20th century. The radioactive fallout has left discernible traces on the stratigraphic record for thousands of years.
The Anthropocene describes a new era where human activity is having a direct impact on nature, which can be traced in Earth’s strata. During recent years, the term has even found its way into philosophical, sociological and cultural debates. This might seem a little peculiar, since it originally describes a geological period that we cannot, with certainty, prove the existence of.6The Anthropocene is by now widely accepted within the world of science, as a proposed description of the current epoch in Earth’s geology, characterized by climactic, biological and geochemical traces of human activity beginning to have an effect on the Earth’s ecosystem. It must be pointed out, though, that the term is not officially approved by either the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), or the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) as a recognized subdivision of geological time. In this perspective, the Anthropocene must be understood as a comprehensive thesis, which is continuously proven or confuted – from an overwhelming number of different scientific viewpoints.
Precisely this fragmented and ever-evolving field of knowledge connected to the Anthropocene has inspired the philosopher Bruno Latour to argue that it is necessary for us to fundamentally rethink our understanding of the objectivity connected to natural science. This is required, not so much because we can no longer put our trust in the results produced by this field of science, but as a reaction to the much more complex amalgamation of human activity that directly affects the phenomenon described by this scientific data.7Bruno Latour, «Agency at the time of the Anthropocene», New Literary History, vol. 45, 2014 (pp. 1–18), pp. 2–3. With a reference to author Michel Serres’ controversial book Le contrat naturel (1990), Latour accentuates how we can navigate this overwhelming abundance of answers to the question concerning the human impact on the state of the planet. He calls attention to the importance of the type of explanation that is actively suspended between fiction and fact by referencing Serres’ own retelling of Galileo’s famously defiant answer to the Inquisition: «and yet it moves.»8Galileo: «Eppur si muove»
This reply, which is said to have been the scientist’s last verbal opposition to those who judged his defense of a heliocentric worldview to be a heretical belief, leads Serres to create a new and more terrifying quote: «and yet the Earth is moved.»9Ibid., p.3 This version of Galileo’s conclusion has less to do with the Earth’s position in the solar system than it has to do with our position in the continual transformation of the planet. Latour’s preoccupation with Serres has to do both with the challenges of scientific discoveries and with the historical tendency for these discoveries to be overlooked, or even purposely ignored, in public debates:
We would need a new Bertolt Brecht to depict how, on talk shows and on Fox News, so many people (for instance, the Koch Brothers, many physicists, a lot of intellectuals, a great many politicians from left and right and alas quite a few cardinals and pastors) are now ridiculing the discovery of the new – also very old – agitated and sensitive Earth, to the point of being in denial about this large body of science.10Ibid., p.4.
Following this statement, Latour juxtaposes contemporary multinational corporations and news media with the Holy Inquisition, but more surprisingly, he locates a special agency and potential in the arts for conveying the complexities and uncertainties connected to the Anthropocene.
Between Fact and Fiction
Serres’ reenactment of Galileo’s famous quote – and Latour’s emphasis of this specific framing of Earth’s ecology – give rise to consider the role of the artist and the work of art in the depiction and reflection of the Anthropocene. How are aesthetic expressions concerning human activity and their impact on Earth suspended between fact and fiction? How do they activate our historical and political consciousness? And what types of images do they produce? These questions automatically lead to another central enquiry, which is to examine the connections that exist between factual representations of the Anthropocene and the prolonged impact of these documents on works of art. Some of the most tendentious and tenacious representations of the Anthropocene are the global images of earth exemplified in the iconic NASA Apollo mission’s Earthrise (1968) and Blue Marble (1972) photographs from space. As historian Thomas M. Lekan argues, these images are used repeatedly to depict a unitary geophysical agent in an inadequate and anachronistic apocalyptic narrative that obscures the details and multiple causes of (man-made) ecological disasters. Lekan appeals for an understanding and framing of the Anthropocene that is not one of the extremes associated with Earth-seen-from-space-photography; that is, neither the «Grand Oasis» described by astronaut Jim Lovell, nor the doomsday visions that have dominated large parts of our climate debate culture since the 1970s.
Thus, the current challenge in our image culture is finding alternative representations to – often misleading – iconic planet-Earth-photos and the abundance of snapshots that are framed in the same manner, as adequate depictions of change and threats that we ourselves impose upon our world. Put in another way, Earth’s ecology is also the bleak and very concrete backdrop to a complex relationship between image abundance and image icons, one that requires that we zoom in and out of the God’s eye view that «seeks an ever more disincarnate subject position by flattening the distinctions between the local and the global along one plane of interaction.»11Thomas M. Lekan, «Fractal Eaarth: Visualizing the Global Environment in the Anthropocene», Environmental Humanities, vol. 5, 2014 (pp. 171–201), p. 197.
So, when considering the correlation between documentary culture and artistic representation, what we are experiencing now might be appropriately termed as «the fiction of memory», an understanding of the basic principle of documentary put forth by French philosopher and cultural critic Jacques Rancière in his text Documentary Fiction: Marker and the Fiction of Memory. He points out that a reflection on the historical and dynamic construction of collective, cultural memory is automatically a reflection on the immanent characteristics of the photographic medium – and vice versa. The conflictual relationship between the storytelling and the photographic evidence, both characteristic of documentary, is expounded with the emphasis that there always exists an inherent element of fiction in the genre. Rancière emphasizes that documentary has to do with memory and our representation of memory. Here memory is not to be understood as the thoughts of an individual person. Quite the contrary, it is the constitution of a collective consciousness and therefore comparable to the historical monument, as it organizes the content of our singular memory into concrete manifestations. Rancière underlines: The Great Pyramid, the tomb par excellence, doesn’t keep Cheops’ memory. It is that memory.12Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, Oxford & New York: Berg, 2006 , p. 157. This is the reason why the grave-monument is used as poetic symbol of the (re)construction of memory. These manifestations, like photographs, function as signs put together with a specific intention and in a particular order.
The process of recollection and realization associated with documentary thus functions in parallel with a general development in the usage of media and in a broader understanding of the genre. As part of the present information flow, photographic images capture everyday life and register almost any event. In the perspective of representing the collective memory of current environmental disasters, this addresses a problematic and multifaceted challenge in our mass mediated communication culture. An abundance of information should ideally indicate an expansion of our recollection but, according to Rancière, communication in our global society indicates the opposite. Information is not the same as memory. It is a form of registration dependent on our collective forgetfulness to cement its own indispensable function as historical document and universal truth. The distribution of knowledge in the information society is then, paradoxically, the self-preservation of the truth-value of that information. To quote Rancière:
As the abundance of facts grows, so grows the sense of […] impossibility of ever reaching a conclusion, of ever being able to read, in the facts and their juxtaposition, the meaning of one story… …The reign of the informational-present rejects as outside reality everything it cannot assimilate to the homogeneous and indifferent process of its self-presentation. Not satisfied with rejecting out of hand everything as already in the past, it doubts the past itself. 13Ibid., p. 158
This critique of the knowledge condition in contemporary society serves as the basis for understanding the division of documentary between fiction and representation of reality. Memory has to be constructed as a meaningful alternative to the plenitude of information available. Thus, the work of the artist that takes on the role of documentarian is as much a work of reshaping, as it is a work of representation. In the perspective of the Anthropocene, sometimes it is even a challenge of how the invisible can be made visible in a meaningful way.
Enter the Hyperobject
Hyperobjects, according to Timothy Morton, are such phenomena as radiation and global warming: Objects of such massive scale and temporality that they exceed the perceptive capacities of humans, in other words, they are physically massive yet ontologically tiny. Dust and bacteria, swirling and aggregating, evolving into dust storms and epidemics, are other such hyperobjects. The author of Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World is having a growing influence on a younger generation of artists preoccupied with ecological issues for good reasons. With references to everything from aboriginal paintings and quantum theory, to H.P. Lovecraft and The Matrix, Morton has written extensively about the wreckage of the Anthropocene. He theorizes artistic representations of the environment as sites for opening ideas of nature to new possibilities. Seeking an aesthetic mode that can account for the differential, paradoxical, and non-identificational character of the environment, Morton proposes a materialist method of analysis called ambient poetics. «Ambience, that which surround on both sides, can refer to the margins of a page, the silence before and after the music, the frame and walls around a picture.»14Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 33 But it could also refer to radioactivity, both natural and artificial.
These somewhat sinister and intriguing reflections provide some parts of a useful framework for an analysis of the research project and touring exhibition Against the Grain by the artists Anu Ramdas and Christian Danielewitz. In 2016 Ramdas and Danielewitz made two expeditions to the epicenter of the Chinese mining industry in Inner Mongolia, where they discovered the hidden and highly toxic deposit of mineral waste, known as Weikuang Dam, which has formed as a result of the global hunger for rare earth elements.
An iPhone contains 8 out of the 17 different rare earth elements. The term rare earth covers the fifteen lanthanides, with the atomic numbers 57–71, as well as Scandium (21) and Yttrium (39). The first rare earth elements were initially discovered in Sweden by Carl Axel Arrhenius in the late 18th century. From the 1960s through to the 1980s rare earth elements were mainly produced at the Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California, but since the beginning of the 21st century China has dominated the market completely. The Japanese refer to rare earth elements with an expression that translates as «seeds of technology», for obvious reasons. In terms of light emissions and magnetic properties, rare earth elements are the most powerful metals in the world. Everything we use with high efficiency light, for example. LEDs and computer screens, all use the same elements (europium and terbium), to produce the reds and the greens.
Beyond digital imagery and memory technologies, rare earth elements are used in almost every other contemporary machinery one can think of, from wind turbines to radar-systems. Rare earth elements enable advanced cyberwarfare as well as solar powered energy. We are, in other words, completely dependent on these soft, silvery metals, which are predominantly mined and refined in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China. The Bayan Obo Mining District supplies half of the global demand for rare earth elements. Located on the edge of an east-west trending Mesoproterozoic rift zone, created some 1.5 billion years ago, on the Northern margin of the Sino-Korean Craton, Bayan Obo is a rocky, desolate wasteland. The steep black slopes surrounding the open-pit crater resemble something out of a fantasy movie. But rare earth elements are, contrary to what one might think, not rare at all. In fact there is an abundance of these metals in the crust of the Earth, but they are extremely difficult to extract, and the impact on the environment is catastrophic, to say the least.
South of Bayan Obo, about four hours’ drive along mountain roads, lies the city of Baotou. On the outskirts of this heavily polluted urban area, one finds the infamous tailings dam Weikuang, an artificial lake containing approximately 85 million m3 of radioactive waste: This is the lethal residue of rare earth elements processing. Weikuang Dam is surrounded by a large, concrete wall to keep it out of sight and access. Surveillance cameras are positioned on tall poles, monitoring the area, but Ramdas and Danielewitz entered through an open, unguarded gate, and spent a couple of nauseating hours exposing several rolls of black and white film on the shores of the semi-liquid waste deposit. However, after the film was developed, they noticed that the images were damaged. A kind of milky fog appeared on each frame. It is difficult to say, whether these ghostlike shadows were caused by the X-ray machines in the airports they were travelling to and from, or if the film had been affected by the radioactivity. In any case, this eerie translucent fog gave way to a reflection on the nature of radiation and appearance that would eventually move Ramdas and Danielewitz to create the photographic Thorium 232/Weikuang series. Morton describes the physical properties of the hyperobject as viscous. Hyperobjects adhere to any other object they touch, no matter how hard an object tries to resist: «Since we only see their shadow, we easily see the ‘surface’ on which their shadow falls as part of a system that they corral into being. We see a host of interacting indexical signs.»15Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, p. 72
Thorium doesn’t belong to the group of rare earth elements, but from the 1940s through to the late 1970s the metal was used to produce the glass in camera lenses. However, the glass discolored over time, with shades of brown and yellow, and several photographers developed eye cataracts, and subsequently blurred vision, caused by the radioactive metal in the camera lens. In the early 1980s thorium was replaced with the far less radioactive rare earth element lanthanum. Thorium 232 is the primordial and most common isotope, with a half-life of more than 14 billion years, equaling the age of the universe. It is found in the same ores as rare earth elements, and separated during processing as an unwanted by-product. The soil around Weikuang contains large amounts of it, and the whole area has become something of a poster child for the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene.
In one of the chapters in his speculative and unsettling book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, the Iranian philosopher and writer Reza Negarestani introduces the reader to Pazuzu, a Sumero-Assyrian demon of epidemics: «Pazuzu specializes in scavenging the stratified Earth and its biosphere in the form of dust, which is then uplinked to alien currents flowing in the universe. These combinations of dryness and wetness are carried back to earth to disseminate disease». Cyclonopedia is set against a Middle Eastern backdrop, but the demon Pazuzu, in the guise of a dust cloud carrying inorganic bacterial relics, could as well have been a metaphorical representation of the hazardous and toxic conditions of Weikuang. When the wind is blowing in from the vast Gobi Desert, the dark grey radioactive dust is whirled up and spread out over Baotou, a city of more than 2 million people, where it enters the soft, organic tissue of human lungs. In his book, Negarestani develops a kind of philosophy of dust: «Each particle of dust carries with it a unique vision of matter, movement, collectivity, interaction, affect, differentiation, composition and infinite darkness – a crystallized database or a plot ready to combine and react, to be narrated on and through something. There is no line of narration more concrete than a stream of dust particles.»16Reza Negaristani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, re.press, 2008, p.113
Against the Grain
By the time of the artists´ next visit to Weikuang, four months later, the liquid radioactive residue had dried up completely. The dark grey surface, resembling a moonscape, was solid enough to walk on. Using a syringe, Ramdas injected the highly radioactive thorium dust into lightproof envelopes containing large format black and white negatives wrapped in tinfoil. The envelopes functioned like small cloud chambers, a sealed environment used in physics to detect charged particles. A cloud chamber, also known as a Wilson chamber, detects ionizing radiation generated by the energy of radioactive decay, a process that separates a particle from the nucleus. Thorium is an alpha emitter, and the high temperatures at Weikuang, combined with the various amounts of sunlight, streaming through the pinhole made with the syringe, set in motion a chain of subatomic collisions inside the envelopes, that was recorded directly onto the negatives. On a macroscale the process is similar to celestial events, such as supernova explosions, and the Thorium 232/Weikuang series indeed seems to depict an imploding planetary system, the birth of a universe, or the release of nuclear energy and devastation.
While Ramdas carefully injected the thorium into the envelopes, Danielewitz documented the performance on 8 mm film with a lens, produced with thorium sometime in the 1970s. The use of obsolete media in contemporary visual arts, such as analogue film and slide projectors, has been somewhat exhausted over the last decade and a half, but this renaissance of the analogue has little to do with nostalgia, and more to do with tangibility; that is, the physical properties of the media itself. The British filmmaker and artist Tacita Dean says in the catalogue for her exhibition Analogue (Basel, 2006):
Analogue, it seems, is a description – a description, in fact, of all things I hold dear. (…) the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics, but something deeper—something to do with poetry. . . . I should not eschew the digital world… but for me, it just does not have the means to create poetry; it neither breathes nor wobbles, but tidies up our society, correcting it and then leaves no trace.17Tacita Dean, Analogue, Schaulager Basel, 2006, p. 8
However, for Ramdas and Danielewitz the use of obsolete media also represents a different dimension. As a meta-documentation of sorts, it articulates a certain evolutionary aspect of technology and minerals: the material relation between the hazardous residue, which is filmed, and the camera it is filmed with. It seems to follow the philosophical trajectory of Graham Harman’s thoughts on infinite regress, and his idea of a universe made up of «objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects», as «every object is both a substance and a complex of relations.»18Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Carus Publishing Company, 2005, p. 83 The destruction of the environment and the overall social and ethical implications is obviously an important aspect of the work, if not the initial motivation. But for Ramdas and Danielewitz it is also a question of exploring the media and the (im)material itself. «We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time», writes Morton. «The reason why they appear nonlocal and temporally foreshortened is precisely because of this trans-dimensional quality. We only see pieces of them at once, like a tsunami or a case of radiation sickness.»19Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, p. 72. Cancer is the physical body´s expression of radioactive materials.
Using analogue film to visualize radioactivity is a well-known method. Workers in nuclear disaster zones are equipped with a so-called film badge dosimeter to determine the levels of radiation. The badge consists of a holder and a piece of black and white photographic film, with varying grain size to affect it’s sensitivity. When the film is irradiated, the silver halide blackens, and an image of the protective case is projected on the film. These measures obviously haven't got anything to do with art; they have to do with the monitoring of health risks. However, the images seem to share a certain methodological affinity with artistic endeavor, although they serve a different purpose. One could say that they are created in the intersection where science meets art.
When dealing with technological catastrophes through the expression of art, determining constructive uses for the term ‘the Anthropocene’ seems very much a part of the challenge of locating interesting positions between the natural sciences and aesthetic interpretation. If these global challenges are to be met with a constructive – instead of an apocalyptic – perspective, it calls for critical art that is not afraid to question our conception of reality and, just as importantly, our established ways of representing reality. When examining aesthetic images and ruminations on ‘the Anthropocene’, perhaps, as sociologist Holly Jean Buck suggests in her redefinition of the term, we ought to be questioning our imagination and habitual tendencies to only focus on the phenomenon on a massive scale. She sees this as counteractive to rethinking any human activity connected with environmental problems, or in the case of artistic representation, a visual and critical reconsideration of the subject. Buck suggests reenchantment as a valuable term for working with the very real conditions of an environmental situation that is highly affected by human activities and the resulting material transformations. At the same time she urges us to consider who actually possesses the role of the enchanter:
Who are the enchanters? Capitalists are not the sole enchanters in the Anthropocene: Anyone can enchant an object, a habitat, a landscape, although people are not generally taught processes by which to do this, and there are not necessarily equal opportunities for these enchantments to blossom into widespread material changes. To be clear, I’m not suggesting going in an illusory direction with this idea. Nor am I advocating a new enchantment or romance with nature-as-object. A better project than reenchanting nature is to enchant humans-in-nature, which is about relationships. Hence, what are needed are practices where relationships can emerge, non-mediated and intimate. In general, the Anthropocene appears to us in mediated forms; one can sense it remotely, track its development, watch its representations evolve in print and on the Internet—but one is not immediately in it, working with it, part of it. The body is a forced temporal migrant within the Anthropocene, but the mind remains outside it, observing. Hence, the invitation here is for Anthropocene as practice, not Anthropocene as a container or setting for experiences. We need to not just retell the Anthropocene but redo it.20Holly Jean Buck, «On the Possibilities of Charming the Anthropocene», Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol 105, Iss. 2, 2015., pp. 371–372.
This call for local human involvement in the shaping of the Anthropocene might first and foremost seem like an activist strategy for dealing with our environmental strategies, but it also suggests an understanding of creative activity that echoes many of the art movements of the last fifty years, be that Land Art, site-specific art, social sculpture, and so on. Reestablishing – or reenchanting – a connection between humans and the role we play in our shared environment no doubt calls for our relationship to nature to be reexamined, but challenging how we represent geographical hot spots through documentations and art is an important part of changing our global outlook.
* All illustrations copyright Anu Ramdas & Christian Danielewitz, 2016
|1||Gabrielle Decamous, «Nuclear Activities and Modern Catastrophes: Art Faces the Radioactive Waves», Artists and Scientists in Times of War, Leonardo 44, No. 2, 2011, p. 129.|
|2||Here it would be far too comprehensive a task to account for this current development in contemporary art. Suffice to say, environmental issues have now become an integral part of most themes at important art biennales and exhibitions at larger museums concerned with modern art. Technology-based artworks have also become the main focus of many exhibitions, and are often the subject for a debate on what can now function as the creative and expressive material of the artist. Furthermore, an in-depth research into catastrophes and crises has found new interest within the academic world. All of these factors combined, it is interesting that not so many artists have chosen to examine the relations between technological developments and ecological crises. One worth mentioning, though, is digital poet and artist Johannes Heldén, who has focused his work on environmental issues in a digital context, see: http://johanneshelden.com|
|3||To our knowledge the only other artistic project that deals with this comprehensive environmental catastrophe near Baotou is Rare Earthenware. This project is a collaboration between the travel initiative Unknown Fields Division, photographer Toby Smith, sculptor Kevin Callaghan and architect Christina Varvia. The main artistic output from this project is three ceramic vessels, each proportioned as traditional Ming vases and made from the amount of toxic waste produced by the manufacture of a smartphone, a laptop and the cell of a smart car battery. See: http://www.unknownfieldsdivision.com/summer2014china-aworldadriftpart02.html#7 Toby Smith, «Rare Earthenware: a journey to the toxic source of luxury goods», The Guardian, April 15, 2015.|
|4||Robert Smithson, «The Domain of the Great Bear», Art Voices, autumn 1966|
|5||Simon Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, «Defining the Anthropocene», Nature vol. 519, 2014, pp. 171–180.|
|6||The Anthropocene is by now widely accepted within the world of science, as a proposed description of the current epoch in Earth’s geology, characterized by climactic, biological and geochemical traces of human activity beginning to have an effect on the Earth’s ecosystem. It must be pointed out, though, that the term is not officially approved by either the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), or the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) as a recognized subdivision of geological time.|
|7||Bruno Latour, «Agency at the time of the Anthropocene», New Literary History, vol. 45, 2014 (pp. 1–18), pp. 2–3.|
|8||Galileo: «Eppur si muove»|
|11||Thomas M. Lekan, «Fractal Eaarth: Visualizing the Global Environment in the Anthropocene», Environmental Humanities, vol. 5, 2014 (pp. 171–201), p. 197.|
|12||Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, Oxford & New York: Berg, 2006 , p. 157.|
|13||Ibid., p. 158|
|14||Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 33|
|15||Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, p. 72|
|16||Reza Negaristani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, re.press, 2008, p.113|
|17||Tacita Dean, Analogue, Schaulager Basel, 2006, p. 8|
|18||Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Carus Publishing Company, 2005, p. 83|
|19||Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, p. 72.|
|20||Holly Jean Buck, «On the Possibilities of Charming the Anthropocene», Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol 105, Iss. 2, 2015., pp. 371–372.|