Art and the Challenges of the Anthropocene
Text by Luiz Camillo Osorio
Translation by Rebecca Atkinson
One of the reasons why we feel so powerless when asked to be concerned by ecological crisis, the reason why I, to begin with, feel so powerless, is because of the total disconnect between the range, nature, and scale of the phenomena and the set of emotions, habits of thoughts, and feelings that would be necessary to handle those crises.
This topic is urgent. What I offer here is just an attempt to begin a conversation about the ways art can help us in the face of an environmental catastrophe. Art exposes us to that which is most imperiled in the world around us. A lot is going on at the same time, and in the midst of it all is a mutating comprehension of what art is. This constant vacillation, this fluctuation of possibilities about what we take art to be, has the effect of exasperating the public somewhat. If everything may, apparently, be art, then surely anything actually is art. A hasty deduction. What it lacks is something that is quite out of vogue today: each person’s subjective experience, which is formed subjectively and socially from their encounter with things in this “provisional” state of art.
The same diffidence toward the mutating state of art can be seen toward what we call nature. In recent years, there have been some very interesting exhibitions that claim they are not “of art”, although they exhibit artworks alongside other non-artistic materials. While they may not be “of” art, they still wish to elicit the complex set of emotions and sensations associated with the way we experience or deny, for example, our climate disaster; exhibitions that are simultaneously of art, science, and politics. Or perhaps a new attempt – much overdue – to offer an aesthetic reeducation for humankind. They see the space of art as an arena with the potential to induce some reconfiguration of our ways of perceiving and thinking about the world today and its predicaments. How can art embrace this debate about the Anthropocene? How can it speak of and show the challenges of this new time, in which human activity is the primary geophysical planetary force? A force of imminent transformation and threat.
All art can do in this context is to present dilemmas, give some sensitive configuration to what escapes us in the everyday hustle for objectivity and efficiency. More than that is not art’s job, but it is already a lot if we realize that the work of the imagination it involves is indispensable for us to reformulate the terms of the political debate. I shall briefly present here two recent exhibition designs that aimed to take the environmental debate, its aesthetics and politics, to the realm of the museum. I should warn in advance that I did not visit either in person, just the online platforms. Technology is an unavoidable ally.
The exhibitions in question are Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics, at ZKM in Germany, curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, and Countryside, The Future, at the Guggenheim in New York, with Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantaal as the curators. Both were held in 2020 and 2021. And both had quite unique statutes. They are not art exhibitions, or at least not just art exhibitions, but they were devised to use the space of art to expand the scope for debate. It is an expectation that resonates strongly with our way of dealing with and experiencing art. Conversations with two master’s students here at PUC-Rio have been very important in this respect(2): the philosophy student Rachel Pires, supervised by Deborah Danovski, and the student of letters Luiz Felipe Reis, supervised by Fred Coelho, discuss the Anthropocene in their research, considering the potential for raising awareness about the climate crisis and the role of the arts. Both work with texts, performances, and curatorial projects by Bruno Latour.
In the case of Koolhaas and Bantaal, at the Guggenheim, the challenge was to take the museum in a new direction for the purposes of “modernizing” our ways of life. Its thesis is that the future is in the countryside. This does not mean a return to nature, but the need to invent new ways of living that incorporate more rational energy consumption, a slower pace of production, and different types of housing, food, and ways of getting around. They looked for thought-provoking projects being pursued around the world and ultimately sought out ways that technology and agriculture could be orchestrated to serve different types of consumption and relationships with time. Evidently, it involves imagining a reduced concentration of people and of wealth and greater integration between what we do and how we live. Political ecology implying a different environmental economy.
The exhibition’s critical reception was largely negative, regarding it as aestheticized, an apology for geoengineering, ingenuous, etc. Like any large exhibition, its size got in the way; the abundance of information was overwhelming. The multiplication of specialized areas of knowledge and the difficulty of exhibiting and presenting them was another recurring theme. Images, statistics, plans, and data were displayed throughout every level of the building. Encountering something between a science fair and a time-warped Crystal Palace, visitors were posed with a number of questions. All important, it should be added. As the curators said, there are far more questions than answers, but the architect’s perspective meant a concern with proposing alternatives always ended up edging in. Irrespective of this point, it is from the midst of these challenges that the exhibition’s central debate speaks: building a future means rethinking our forms of housing and considering sustainable ways of occupying land. This inevitably means finding new existential paradigms and new models for society, new forms of interaction between rich countries and poor, new alliances between humans and non-humans, between economics and geology, between currencies, bodies, and life.
The name of Latour and Weibel’s exhibition points to the living surface of the planet, where life forms feed back into each other and assure the habitability of the Earth. One point the curators stressed in the many online events and discussions they took part in, promoted by ZKM, is that this was not a utopian exhibition. In fact, it was the utopias of the last two centuries that led us to the unsustainable place in which we find ourselves. To use a metaphor from the history of science, the modern utopia began with Galileo pointing his telescope to the moon. And there we ventured as alien subjects, a technologically expanded cogito for which infinity was the limit. Now we must all turn our instruments to the Earth and find out how to reoccupy and reinhabit it. After all, only here can we breathe, walk, carry on living.
The exhibition also contained a varied combination of artistic and scientific experiments. The curatorial work sought to combine unconnected fields of scientific research and give them a degree of voice, body, materiality, sensibility. The scale of the exhibition was more amenable than at the Guggenheim. It is curious that both exhibitions ran simultaneously in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic that makes us feel more keenly just how dependent we are on each other and on what we do with the life forms that share the planet.
A virus released by the heedless manipulation of wild animals, rampant deforestation, and disregard for ecological equilibrium had the power to stop the planet in its tracks and make us realize that the old normal was out of control in terms of both social inequalities and disregard for the environment and the climate. Awareness of the problem we are experiencing in the Anthropocene has become heightened, underlining the fact that we are all on board this single planet, and it could simply jettison us and carry on its journey with life forms that are more resistant than us.
In the introduction to the book Facing Gaia, Bruno Latour reveals a scene from a dance production choreographed by Stefany Ganachaud, which reoriented his researches of Gaia, of what we are doing with our planet and how to somehow make visible things that all statistics point to but which continue to be represented in the intangible order of numbers. This image echoes in the course of his research and thence in his curatorial work. “It all began with the idea of a dance movement that captured my attention, some ten years ago. I couldn’t shake it off. A dancer is rushing backwards to get away from something she must have found frightening; as she runs, she keeps glancing back more and more anxiously, as if her flight is accumulating obstacles behind her that increasingly impede her movements, until she is forced to turn around. And there she stands, suspended, frozen, her arms hanging loosely, looking at something coming towards her, something even more terrifying than what she was first seeking to escape – until she is forced to recoil. Fleeing from one horror, she has met another, partly created by her flight.”(3)
Fleeing the past in the blind belief in progress, we moderns went about turning the future into a minefield that is now rising up against us. We are caught in a maelstrom and must think up ways to deal with it. That is the main goal of these exhibitions. A poetic image of the power of Gaia and this clash between our conceit and our dependency was given by curator Ricardo Sardenberg in a recent post on social media. He speaks of the massive container ship 400 meters long, 60 meters wide, and 200,000 tons in weight plus its 20,000 containers, which was driven aground in the Suez canal by a gale that turned it sideways as if it were a sailboat. It was eventually refloated when the full moon and its gravitational force made the tide rise and helped lift its 200,000 tons without much ado. The planet Gaia and its natural forces are far more potent than we imagine.
What is most striking in the curatorial proposals discussed here is the fact that the exhibitions, by reconstituting complementary research and experiments, had the primary goal of confronting a subliminal denialism. An indirect denialism concealed in the hope – more perilous than ever – that the same hubris that caused the problem will be able to solve it. As if the technologized cogito, turbo-powered by capital, is enough to prevent us accelerating into the abyss. Geoengineering proposals are an important part of the debate, future inventions may find some solutions, but it is unlikely that they alone will be sufficient. Both exhibitions make clear just how complex the challenges are, but they pin their hopes on solutions that are at the same time more radical, more peculiar, and more challenging. There is no way out unless we change the way we live. And that will demand imagination, negotiation, conflict, transformation. Art is certainly a prime space for dealing with the unknown and admitting our constitutive frailty. To temper the tragic tone, I end with a suggestion of a video by the indigenous artist Isael Maxakali (winner of PIPA Online 2020) entitled O Dilúvio Maxakali (The Maxakali Flood), that you can watch below or on the artist’s page. It is a lesson in resistance and poetry in the face of the imminent shipwreck.
(1) LATOUR, B. Waiting for Gaia. Composing the common world through arts and politics, available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/124-GAIA-LONDON-SPEAP_0.pdf
(2) The conversations began last semester during a graduate course I gave on curatorship by philosophers, and have branched out this year with a new course on the actuality of the sublime
(3) LATOUR, B. – Facing Gaia. Cambridge: Polity, 2017 (translated by Catherine Porter)