Art and the Anthropocene

Bob Dickinson on eco art

Public announcement: we are living in a new geological period, a period characterised by ecosystem failures, rising sea levels, freakish weather, climate-led migrations and the ending of many historical assumptions. How does contemporary art address the age that is being called the Anthropocene?

As ecosystems continue to bear the brunt of human activity and global warming becomes a reality, the neologism Anthropocene, or the ‘human now’, has become a buzzword (Artnotes AM382). Officially, we are still living in the Holocene era, but the Strategic Commission of the Geological Society of London has adopted Anthropocene as a term ‘deserving further consideration’ as an era or an epoch. Its origins are multiple: ecologist Eugene F Stoermer and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen began using it independent of one another in the 1980s and eventually agreed to share the credit, although there are claims that Russian scientists were employing the term 20 years earlier.

Whatever the origin of the term, its meaning is clear enough: the biosphere – the surface of the Earth’s crust which interacts with the atmosphere – has been indelibly changed by humans, and the rate of change is speeding up globally, affecting weather, sea temperatures and drastically altering the icecaps. The process may have begun a mere 250 years ago with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, or perhaps 11,000 years earlier with the first farmers, only to accelerate in the 20th century with the effects of agribusiness, globalised fossil-fuel exploitation and radioactive pollution. Human action – ingenious as well as stupid – now infects the biology, meteorology and geology of the planet. Faced with the implications of global warming, contemporary artists and curators are well placed to mount thought-provoking responses to it, but what is less clear is whether the traditional, formal approach of gallery-based art, or the current fashion for biennales, can have any effect on public opinion let alone the workings of an ecosystem in any practical way.

When, for instance, Nicolas Bourriaud curated the 2014 Taipei Biennial, he titled it ‘The Great Acceleration: Art in the Anthropocene’. Bourriaud, the author of Relational Aesthetics in 2002 and a champion of the philosophical movement Speculative Realism, described the Biennial (in the South China Post) as ‘a tribute to the coactivity among humans and animals, plants and objects’, adding: ‘Aside from the coactivity in this exhibition, there is also another kind of coactivity that exists between politicians, artists and scientists, and this is the coactivity that can change the world.’

All of which sounded promising enough. In the event, the Biennial was strong on representations of ‘our space-time’, which included Joan Jonas’s tribute to melting glaciers, Reanimation II, 2010-13, Po-Chih Huang’s examination of migration and cheap garment-making, Production Line – Made in China and Made in Taiwan, 2014, Nathaniel Mellors’s jokingly surreal film about the role and the possible arrival from space of one of humanity’s lost ancestors, Neanderthal Container, 2014, Hung-Chih Peng’s twisted cruise liner, evoking ecological crisis and extreme weather, The Deluge – Noah’s Ark, 2014, and Yu-Chen Wang’s series of drawings, sculptural installations and a fictional fragment imagining post-apocalyptic life-forms, This Is The End, 2014.

Ten of the 52 artists were Taiwanese, but despite this the Biennial was considered by some reviewers to have felt too international, and could have been presented anywhere in the world. Perhaps this was partly because the Taipei Biennial takes place in one central location rather than being spread city-wide, and also perhaps because it did not (or could not) include several socially engaged art projects occurring elsewhere in former rural areas of Taiwan that in recent times have gone through extreme social and environmental change. Currently on show at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), under the title ‘Micro Micro Revolution’, three such projects are documented. They exemplify the approach artists have taken in response to the situation in northern Taiwan where traditional communities have struggled to exist alongside (or within) expanding zones of unregulated industrialisation. Curator Lu Pei-yi defines the approach taken by these artists in terms of them ‘stepping back’ from foregrounding their own personalities.

Instead, the artists devote their time to coexisting with communities such as the Amis Tribe, an urban aboriginal people that in 2008 were faced with the prospect of their village, Sa’owac, being demolished to make way for a cycling route along the Dahan Riverbank. Two artists, Hsu Su-chen and Lu Chien-ming, moved in and helped them resist and reconstruct. This work, known as the Plant Matter New Eden Art Project, 2008-, brought together environmental issues, living rights and the marginal condition of Amis people in the area, and resulted in the village being rebuilt and the election in 2014 of an Amis councillor. At CFCCA, an example of one of the village’s new houses is on show in the gallery and on the opening night their tribal chief performed a traditional blessing on the building before leading visitors in a loud and energising few minutes of song and dance.

Another project at CFCCA, 500 Lemon Trees, 2013-, is by Huang Po-chih, who sees his role as a combination of artist, farmer and entrepreneur. He raised money by subscription to plant lemon trees on fallow farmland in Hsinchu County. After two years, the first harvested lemons were made into Limoncello, bottled and sold under the project’s own label. A third project, Plum Tree Creek, 2010-, a cultural action by Wu Mali and Bamboo Curtain Studio, focuses on an area on the margin of the Taipei Basin and the mouth of the Danshui River, where water is badly polluted and streams culverted or drained off. The artists are working with local people on the premise that ‘all the environmental problems are actually caused by cultural problems’, and are trying to ‘re-connect the broken land with the water’. In 2012 the scheme became part of New Taipei City’s Grand River masterplan.

What these examples of new Taiwanese art have in common is long-term, low-level involvement by artists eager to strengthen a local community’s ability to improve their environment and renew their sense of identity by reviving traditional cultural attitudes towards the natural world. In parallel, the Chinese artist Xu Bing also worked with hundreds of local school children in 2013 when he brought his Forest Project, 2008-, to Taiwan, to aid the village of Sandiman which had been damaged in Typhoon Morakot. The project, which originated in Kenya, raises funds to plant trees by exhibiting and selling children’s tree drawings, their value boosted by Xu’s own copying of the original artwork. Throughout these initiatives, the influence of Joseph Beuys – who is referenced in CFCCA’s exhibition guide – is never far away, especially his works like 7,000 Oaks, 1982, a five-year tree-planting project for Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany, where Beuys and a host of helpers united art, nature and democratic decision-making as a way of regenerating ‘the life of humankind within the body of society’ and to ‘prepare for a positive future in that context’.

Despite the fact that environmental catastrophe receives increasing media attention, and has since the late 1960s been a subject for contemporary artists (‘Art and Catastrophe’, AM362), it remains a sticking point with wealthier democracies that the entangled, accelerative effect of the Anthropocene condition is, unfortunately, not of serious concern to the majority of voters – especially since the bank-induced global economic downtown of 2008 deflected attention away from environmental issues and towards more immediate financial concerns. And although Green political parties have found a voice in many parts of the world, governments exhibit a schizophrenic mentality in continuing to prioritise economic growth even while accumulating evidence points to its detrimental effects. By the time the truth sinks in, it is thought by some academics that the impact of the Anthropocene on future populations will include ‘climate trauma’: widespread mental illness in the form of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. One of the people who supports this analysis is Camille Parmesan, lead author of the Nobel prize-winning Third Assessment Report on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who left the US to live in the UK because it was so hard to convince US audiences that climate change is a reality.

This is why the demonstrative, praxis-based possibilities raised in the work of some contemporary artists puts them in a position to pose deep, ethical questions about the implications of the Anthropocene, not least those concerning the nature of death, as outlined by writer and ex-soldier Roy Scranton in his 2015 book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. Scranton, who witnessed the complete social collapse of Baghdad following its invasion by US forces in 2003, then saw the process repeated two years later after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. About climate change, Scranton declared: ‘This civilization is already dead,’ and that all we can do is ‘adapt, with mortal humility, to our new reality.’

One response to this is Mary Mattingly’s recent series of works, including two collaboratively built and run boat-based ecosystems, Waterpod, 2006-10, in New York, and the Philadelphia-based Wetland, 2014-. Mostly made of found materials, Waterpod was constructed on a barge containing living space, rainwater purification equipment, solar-generated power, raised planting beds to grow fruit and vegetables, and chickens to provide eggs. It became as much an experiment in living together for those on board as a demonstration of sustainability. Wetland, a ‘floating sculpture’ resembling a partially submerged building, contains vegetable gardens, composting systems, water and waste recycling systems, as well as space for workshops and performances, enabling it to connect with local communities and serve as ‘symbol, social space, stage and shelter’. Both projects demonstrate how a nomadic micro-community might survive 150-odd years from now, after the deluge, floating around a broken, post-industrial Eastern Seaboard coastline. Mattingly cites Buckminster Fuller as an influence on her work, and the Waterpod has carried a series of geodesic domes of the sort popularised in the 1950s and 1960s by the designer and inventor who also conceived the idea of ‘Spaceship Earth’. Perhaps the remark on his gravestone, ‘Call me Trimtab’, explains more about the way Mattingly’s projects are intended to work, however – the trimtab being the miniature rudder on aeroplane wing-flaps and elevators, as well as on the rudders of ships; in other words, the rudder that moves the rudders.

Another of Mattingly’s artistic antecedents is Bonnie Ora Sherk, whose San Francisco-based ‘environmental performance sculptures’ such as Portable Parks I-III, 1970, and Crossroads Community, also known as the Farm, 1974-80, were attempts to reactivate ‘dead spaces’ caused by sprawling freeway systems and other forms of urban blight. The Farm in particular became a long-term ‘ecological wonderland’, involving other artists and practitioners including the Raw Egg Animal Theatre, who together with local visitors tended gardens and livestock. Sherk continues to inspire and run ‘A Living Library (A.L.L.)’, 1981-, a series of instructive gardens to be found on various sites in New York and San Francisco.

The above examples of work by Mattingly and Sherk are experiments demonstrating how people might one day live. But in large parts of the world today, people have no choice about the way the Anthropocene is forcing them to find new ways to survive. The recent films and installations by Ursula Biemann, particularly Deep Weather, 2013, and Egyptian Chemistry, 2012, examine in detail the extent to which governments and corporations are exploiting the environment and the way human lives have to adapt as a result. Deep Weather looks at the ‘Ur liquids’: oil and water. In northern Canada the extraction and steam-processing of tar sand creates huge, chemically polluted lakes, destroying the physical ecology and its ‘psychic’ equivalent for local First Nation people. In Bangladesh, by contrast, rising water levels caused by extreme weather and melting ice in the Himalayas force people and essential facilities like schools and hospitals to adopt an increasingly amphibian lifestyle. With water also its main theme, Egyptian Chemistry looks at the history of Nile engineering schemes initiated by successive Egyptian governments, contrasting President Nasser’s socialistic Aswan Dam hydroelectric project (which destroyed the lands and culture of the Nubian people who were displaced by the project) with Hosni Mubarak’s Toshka programme, begun in the 1990s, to build canals taking water from Lake Nasser to irrigate the Western Desert and turn it into farmland to be given away to students. As Biemann puts it, this still incomplete (and agriculturally flawed) scheme aims to ‘turn sterile lands ... into field laboratories for new forms of human life’.

Biemann’s work points towards what the eco-philosopher Timothy Morton terms the ‘interobjective’, meaning situations formed by relations between more than one object – be it oil, water or sunlight – giving rise to immense ‘hyperobjects’, one of which is global warming itself. Morton thinks that the distribution of global warming over time and space makes it so vast that it defies all our established ideas about what a thing is in the first place, therefore meriting the term ‘hyperobject’, other examples of which include tectonic plates and nuclear radiation. According to Morton, the ecological crisis that the world is experiencing is ‘the time of hyperobjects’ because it is the moment when these massive entities make ‘decisive contact’ with humans. While Biemann’s observations also relate environmental degradation to overconsumption, and Mattingly’s work foregrounds cultural surplus and waste (especially her sculptures made of domestic possessions, like Terrene, 2012, and Pull, 2013), another artist, Pinar Yoldas, takes us deep inside the science of rubbish and what new life-forms might be emerging from it, touching again on Morton’s notion of the ‘interobjective’.

An Ecosystem of Excess, 2014, is a series of realistic sculptures representing invented creatures and digestive systems that might one day evolve from life on the Pacific Trash Vortex, a huge gyre of floating plastic marine debris (PMD), another example of which exists in the North Atlantic. Yoldas’s ‘creatures’ include Pantone Birds that eat plastic bottle caps and Pacific Balloon Turtles with inflatable body parts. It all sounds like the kind of thing that could have been dreamt up in the mind of the late JG Ballard, but Yoldas’s project was informed by a scientific paper, ‘Life in the Plastisphere’, published in 2013 by microbiologist Dr Erik Zettler, whose team at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Massachusetts, used electron microscopy to examine microbial communities living on the North Atlantic PMD gyre. Local to the gyre, varieties of these bacteria show evidence of ‘active hydrolysis of the hydrocarbon polymer’. In other words, they digest plastic. While it is thought that within 40 years all of the world’s coral reefs will be dead, another kind of reef made from plastic may be teeming with new life forms.

These speculative biologies also have roots in the 20th century, notably in the work of Richard Lowenberg, whose collaborations with musicians and technologists during the 1970s and 1980s specialised in ‘environmental monitoring, sensing and transducing’, homing in on ‘amplified plant energy’ or turning natural processes into sound. The Secret Life of Plants, 1976, combined signals from plants and humans, presented by the artist as a form of music using synthesisers, manipulating technology to link disconnected living things. Again, these works were as much about human collaboration as presentation, leading to the artist’s proposition in 2005 for a ‘slow tech’ movement to combat the damaging psychological effects of rapid technological development. Nowadays, Lowenberg describes himself as a tele-community planner and ecosystems designer.

It remains problematic that the Anthropocene is a concept that is defined and articulated by humans, when the crisis it represents impacts on the non-human while also generating ‘hyperobjects’ like global warming. This is why object-centred ontologies are proving to be of interest to some artists (Features AM368, 371, 374, 375), one recent project in particular being noteworthy because of its use of the human body. In The Silence of the Monkeys, 2015, the performance artist Evangelia Basdekis seeded her hair with lentils, wheat, corn, black-eyed beans and barley, which over time were allowed to germinate using the artist’s own sweat. This meant that during the germination period the artist’s body was ‘marginalised’ because she could not work or participate in social activities, and she even thought herself (if ‘self’ was part of the consideration) to be ‘in rebellion against daily life and routine’ and ‘useless for contemporary society or for the capitalistic model of surviving’. Basdekis sees this as part of a protest at the artificial gap between humans and nature, which has involved (on the human side) the history of stereotyping nature either as romantic and transcendental or as an inexhaustible source for exploitation. At the same time, in giving life to the seeds, the artist went through a kind of death through marginalisation and self-negation. During the performance’s finale, at AD Gallery in Athens, the artist’s hair – sprouting abundant green shoots – was cut off, and the shoots it gave life to were replanted in soil.

Addressing the fundamental questions presented to us by the Anthropocene, including Scranton’s on how to face death, or Biemann’s on eco-death versus human survival, or Yoldas’s on new life forms evolving out of plastic waste, we are entering what Scranton calls ‘humanity’s most philosophical age’. In pondering this, it is an understatement to say that artists have their work cut out. The Anthropocene is both a metaphysical concept and concrete reality: tomorrow’s fossil record will reveal one story only, that of the rise and demise of the human race. What will remain preserved of the art of the Anthropocene is anybody’s guess.

Bob Dickinson is a writer and broadcaster based in Manchester.

First published in Art Monthly 389: September 2015.

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