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The project had humble beginnings. Our primary intention was to invite a small group of hybrid artist/practitioner colleagues into an experimental context. They would be colleagues whose work we respected for how it addressed the challenges of the Anthropocene (ranging from work on the proliferation of plastic to extinction of species, climate chaos, the “thing” power of food, what it means to find one’s life work in the Anthropocene, imagining deep time, etc.).
Instead of talking about our work, sharing our latest projects, or assembling together for the purpose of creating “change,” we would simply pause together. For an hour and a half we would offer our guests traditional Japanese matcha tea and sweets (higashi) in simple acknowledgment of, and gratitude towards, the fortitude they show by turning their lives and work toward instead of away from the complexities of planetary realities in the Anthropocene.
We chose higashi as our medium for this event because they are a tiny, dry confectionary that are materially sturdy enough to travel the nearly 7,000 miles from Kyoto, Japan. For centuries, Japanese sweets such as higashi have accompanied matcha tea at traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The offering and eating of the sweets inaugurates a point of pause and contemplation, and enacts generosity and gratitude shared among guests.
Notably, Japanese craftsmen have refined the designs of traditional higashi over hundreds of years to translate daily experiences of seasonal variation into edible forms. The designs of the sweets (autumn leaves, spring cherry blossoms, grains of rice) invite guests to psychologically be with and move with seasonal change as it unfolds.
However, the sweets we would offer in our project would not be traditional higashi.
Higashi for the Anthropocene would be designed to suggest that the daily seasonal variations we are now experiencing in the Anthropocene constitute a “fifth season.” This fifth season is marked by strange weather whose unseasonable events increasingly cut through, interrupt, and scramble the familiar weather events of the “traditional” four seasons. Higashi for the Anthropocene would invite traditional tea sweets to intentionally turn, like us, towards the Anthropocene. They would be designed to serve as apertures onto the Anthropocene. We would use aspects of their color, form, and symbols to center our focus on the material and climate realities of the Anthropocene. But at the same time, we would use higashi’s association with the hospitality, calmness, sweetness, and pleasures of the Japanese tea ceremony to turn us away from the all too readily available narratives about the Anthropocene. The event would be designed to offer something other than steeping ourselves in the currently hyper-mediated sentiments such as despair, guilt, or heroism.
To materialize these intentions in the form of higashi for the Anthropocene, we asked Kagizen Yoshifusa, a 300-year old confectionary shop in Kyōto, and Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo) to collaborate with us. Together, we would use the medium of higashi to reimagine traditional seasonal designs and make them capable of acknowledging the now emerging, unseasonable fifth season.
We invited a special venue to support the gathering: Kajitsu restaurant. Kajitsu specializes in shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian meals). It serves New York City as much as a cultural institution as it does a restaurant. Their seasonally attuned menus change monthly, and their special events celebrate centuries-old Japanese crafts and holidays which are often inspired by the seasons.
As smudge studio, we sensed an urgency to invent new ways to inhabit the Anthropocene in our daily lives. We wanted to see if Higashi for the Anthropocene might prove to be an event that we could draw upon for inspiration and resiliency in coming months. We suspect it might be the first of many practices we will invent in the near future — practices we design to help us (and maybe others) “hold the thought” of the Anthropocene as our contemporary condition, but do so without exhausting or depleting us.
Today, post-event, we believe that the project was a “success” in those ways. We saw in our guests a palpable affirmation of the necessity of the project’s gestures, and we sensed sincere appreciation of attempts to find ways to live within emerging material realities, and in new ways.
We are grateful for our guests’ responsiveness and willingness to meet us in this experimental space; to momentarily re-direct their time towards the explorations we made together through Higashi for the Anthropocene; and to meet us — even on a Saturday afternoon — once again, within the Anthropocene.
traditional autumn higashi, made by Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto), “spring” cherry blossom higashi made out of season for the project, by Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo)
For our guests, the story of how the ideas and intentions for this project ultimately took the material form of sugary sweets and were delivered to us in New York further qualified the candies as higashi of and for the Anthropocene. Silently embedded within the bodies of the higashi themselves, and now within the guests who consumed them, are tales and journeys that also bespeak the Anthropocene. It took eleven weeks to bring Higashi for the Anthropocene into the world. Some aspects of their journey could be anticipated (such as the comedy and tragedy of Brooklyn international delivery). Others, not.
When you look at Higashi for the Anthropocene, it’s easy to notice that they appear a little rough-hewn. They co-exist awkwardly alongside traditional higashi whose forms and executions have been perfected over centuries. But the candies/sculptures/objects in/of the Anthropocene were born of limits — limits of language, time, Anthropocene weather, international logistics and sugar itself. A 14-hour time difference between New York and Kyoto ensured that all email communication for the project took place at times felt to be too early or too late in the day for messages to be meaningfully composed or absorbed. Our inability to communicate in grammatically correct Japanese greatly influenced the parameters of the project and its process. There were countless attempts to find the simplest and most direct ways to describe and communicate elusive qualities and sensations of the Anthropocene, so that the geologic epoch could then be abstracted into sugar form. Even in English, we don’t have language that adequately captures the difference of the Anthropocene or that describes unfamiliar sensations of its unseasonable qualities. But this project led us to realize that striving or waiting for such language is not actually viable. There isn’t time, and tasks are too urgent. Many design expectations had to be let go of, and simultaneously, many improvised alternatives had to be spoken and drawn before they could be enacted. As we forged ahead, We were humbled to realize that it is a substantial task to ask anyone, and any practice — especially those that have been preserved and refined over centuries — to break their form for the purpose of turning towards/into the Anthropocene.
These tiny fragile candies have a carbon footprint of 7,000+ miles. Their path towards the table at Kajitsu passed through the 19th and largest typhoon to affect Japan this year. They are poignant material traces of moments of reinvention, re-assessment and reframing within unfolding Anthropocene events themselves. Perhaps what is most telling about this project as a gesture of acknowledgement toward the Anthropocene, is that these candies were brought into being by a host of unrelated people who worked across great distance and differences to address something none of us fully understood. As limits were reached, the project did not collapse, but reshaped itself to what became possible when we turned at those limits and proceeded with a difference. The outcomes were generative failures of translation and intention. They were then gifted to, and consumed by, a bold and creative group of humans who are daring to turn into the Anthropocene.
Higashi for the Anthropocene, designs by Jamie Kruse, produced by Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto)
Higashi for the Anthropocene, Kajitsu restaurant, October 25, 2014
Higashi for the Anthropocene, Kajitsu restaurant, October 25, 2014
Please see smudge studio project page for details on the higashi designs.
** Sincere gratitude to Valerie Triggs and Michele Sorensen for project support.
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