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Monday morning as we were leaving Berlin, the above image appeared on the cover of the newspaper displayed in the lobby at our hotel. The news had just broken that Beijing experienced the worst air quality recording on record the previous Saturday. The reading actually exceeded registered standards, peaking at 755 on the 500 point scale set by the EPA. Day had been rendered night as thick bands of air particulate filled the city. Some described the situation as “post-apocalyptic,” and that struck a cord, as we had just attended and participated in The Anthropocene Project: An Opening at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW).
The “festival” of events included lectures, research forums, conversations, screenings and performances—all addressing (creatively, analytically, experimentally) the state of humans in relation to the planet and in relation to ideas (and realities) of accelerating change, the end of “nature” and deep geologic futures. The words “post-apocalyptic” had been spoken several times among those gathered, but being reminded of the material realities unfolding in the “outside” world, on the streets of Beijing, lent a sense of immediacy to how we might take up the questions and challenges posed by what some are now calling the Anthropocene.
The four-day long event was a sustained attempt to explore what the scientific “news” of the Anthropocene might mean for assumptions, long-held ideas and ideas, and processes of the arts and humanities—especially within the frames and histories of Western thought. The impressive and eclectic list of participants defies any quick summarization. Luckily, audio recordings of selected keynote lectures and discussions are now posted on the HKW website. Several aspects of the event set it apart from other “conferences” we’ve attended. We were thrilled to listen to thoughtful and patient exchanges between natural scientists and social scientists, artists and literary critics. In a captivating conversation format, for example, geologist Jan Zalasiewicz described to historian/sociologist John Tresch, just how the process by which the Anthropocene might eventually be adopted into the official geologic timescale (the process will take years). Jan is the convener of the “Anthropocene Working Group” for the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London.
The event’s process of exchanging ideas put an emphasis on dramaturgy. Lectures were invited to become more like performances than typical academic paper deliveries. They were staged late into the evening and were organized through “islands” of thought and events under themes such as “Oikos,””Techné,” “Times” and “Garden.” In the lobby of HKW, a Metabolic Kitchen by raumlaborberlin offered attendees including, artists, scientists and cooks, “various situational arrangements in relation to the preparation and consumption of food,” with an emphasis on the metabolic transformation of “food” into bodies.
On Saturday night, Michael Taussig delivered a mesmerizing meditation/reading/performance on the impossibility of grasping the Copernican Revolution, called the Berlin Sun Theater. Other hybrid performance/conversation/lectures ranged from a focused Anthropocenic Research Forum to a Bauhaus inspired “Breath Breakfast.” On the last day of the event, during a roundtable discussion on storytelling, we had the chance to see a several-minute long clip from the Otolith Group’s important film The Radiant. Otolith made the film in response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. It screened last summer at dOCUMENTA(13). Since last October, we’ve been considering the implications of T.J. Demos review of dOCUMENTA(13), in which he emphasized the role of The Radiant within the larger art fair (see Brooklyn Rail). In particular, we were drawn to Demos observations:
“… the evacuated Japanese villages and untouchable plant life within the contamination zone serve as an experimental laboratory in which elderly volunteers expose themselves to what the Otolith Group calls “the necropolitics of radiation” served up by the global nuclear regime for scientific research, exemplified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. “The Radiant” thus exemplifies what Fredric Jameson calls “negative utopianism,” one that “transform[s] our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” And that future doesn’t look pretty. Rather than giving itself over to the sci-fi seductions of some future bio-technology, this work finds the future immanent in specific conditions of our present. The result is that the future projected by “The Radiant”works like a mechanism to make the present different than it appears, sparking a political energy to resist what is already occurring … questions lie at the heart of contemporary debates over what kind of world we want to live in, how it will be organized, and what role art might play in its creative imagination, representation, and realization. With each passing day, the stakes of those debates only continue to grow more momentous.”
We were surprised to leave Berlin feeling energized, perhaps even optimistic, after such an intensive engagement with so many pressing and unanswerable questions about the future of humans in and as the Anthropocene. Yes, there had been many poignant reminders of how little time there could be left for humans to address the “great acceleration” of material transformation now occurring on and to the Earth: on opening night, climate change scientist Will Steffen’s keynote, “Where on Earth Are we Going,” (listen to audio here) left little doubt that humans have precipitated this acceleration to some degree. And the question of how we will meet or counterbalance this acceleration continues on, unanswered and urgent, after the HKW event. But the optimism we left with stems from having participated in an event that took bold risks as it provoked new ways to stage and create knowledge. The very terms of long-held modes of academic and artistic engagement were thrown open. The HKW format challenged participants not to default into standard and comfortable delivery/presentations/discussions, and to instead share work in ways that go beyond disciplinary blind spots or intellectual jousting. The invitation was to provoke one another, probe our own assumptions, cross-pollinate, and reconsider our own methodologies and working practices. Typical roles of “artist” “scientist” and/or “academic” were displaced in the process. As smudge, we were surprised and humbled by being given the task, as artists, to deliver an “impulse statement” to a roundtable conversation entitled “Friction.” Participants of this roundtable included Dipesh Chakrabarty, Akeel Bilgrami, Paulo Tavares and Renée Green. In this lively assemblage of philosophers, artists, and cultural theorists, we used a speculative project as a shared point of departure, rather than as a statement of predetermined conclusions.
We left with a feeling that there was something gathering just beyond or outside the frames of reference shared and challenged at The Anthropocene Project: An Opening. It’s something that needs to be brought into thought, discussion, and practical action. It’s something like: those not yet fully thought or lived ideas and sensations that become possible when we start from the felt reality of being enmeshed in the Anthropocene’s qualitatively new state of material conditions and dynamics. And, it’s something like: those not yet fully imagined stories about “The Anthropocene” . . . those alter-narratives that affirm the Anthropocene is different from all narratives of nature and culture that Western sciences, philosophies and arts might attempt to lay over it—while unsettling every definition of nature, culture, and difference arrived at (to paraphrase Trinh T. Minh-Ha). We sense that HKW’s “Opening” has brought the inappropriate, inappropriated planetary state-shift that is the Anthropocene, closer to awareness for us, and perhaps for others who participated.
The HKW Anthropocene Project runs through 2014. Jan Zalasiewicz reminded everyone on the final day that what is being called “the Anthropocene” is less a geologic marking of an “Age of Man” and more a materially inscribed threshold of radical geological change—shaped and accelerated by human activity. “The Anthropocene” calls attention to the rate and extent of material change that is presently unfolding on planet earth. This event of accelerated change in the material conditions of the planet, and its consequences, is what will determine “the next” of human life on earth. The question of how we humans will meet its consequences received a particularly provocative and energizing calling-out at HKW last week.
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