“We find ourselves in the sixth phase of mass extinction in the history of our planet, but this is the first time that a single species is responsible for such a cataclysmic event”. These words were spoken by the scientist Will Steffen on the first day of the conference The Anthropocene Project: An Opening when he took the floor in the vast, filled-to-the-rafters auditorium of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Steffen, who is one of the main architects behind the “Anthropocene” theory and works for the Australian National University Climate Change Institute, continues: “It is estimated that around 70 per cent of all life will become extinct, and that mankind is the driving force behind this. Ironically, this happens at the same time that Craig Ventor and his team of approximately 1,000 scientists have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on creating just one artificial chromosome that can help just one synthetic bacteria survive – welcome to the anthropocene reality”.
In the four days that followed, the events at Haus der Kulturen der Welt allowed you to see geologists, anthropologists, artists, filmmakers, and thinkers engage in conversations that cut across professional barriers and unfolded themselves with a rare intensity and unusually well orchestrated intellectual energy. The Anthropocene Project: An Opening marked the beginning of a two-year project dedicated to exploring and developing knowledge about, perspectives on, and visions about The Anthropocene as a concept, epoch, and cosmology. Now that the discussion seems to have exploded its way into all disciplines, it is only fitting to clarify the concept. For what does Anthropocene mean?
The Anthropocene theory dates back a decade or so and takes its origins in geology. However, one should really also point back to the biochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, who presented his thoughts on what he called “the psychozoic era” and “the nöosphere” in 1943. Will Steffen, who gave the opening lecture at the conference, offered the following definition: “The term Anthropocene suggests that the Earth is moving out of its current geological epoch, called the Holocene, and that human activity is largely responsible for this exit from the Holocene; i.e. that humankind has become a global geological force in its own right”.
The consequences are, of course, dizzying. If global man-made systems have, as whole, become an uncontrolled planet-changing force, humanity’s survival depends on mastering planetary systems via so-called “geo-engineering” and “terra-forming”. But what political institutions can and should make decisions on behalf of the planet? Expectations regarding the will and power to act among current political institutions run very low indeed. From who or where would any new, universal institutions derive legitimacy? How can we build a planet-wide “We” – and is this even possible?
When did this man-made geological epoch begin? The geologist Jan Zalasiewicz works for the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which establishes the perimeters of geological epochs. In a conversation with science historian John Tresch he explained that on a global scale, geological layers begin to change in earnest from 1950 onwards. This marks the beginning of what geologists call “the great acceleration”, where virtually all modern fields of production began to grow exponentially. The 1950s also saw a vast number of test detonations of nuclear and hydrogen bombs, which means that radioactive isotopes can be found on every square metre of the Earth for more than 100,000 years to come.
The questions of how such traces can be rendered visible and of what political institutions would possibly be able to handle timeframes on a geological and planetary scale were addressed by the New York-based artists’ group Smudge Studios in their film works, interventions, and theoretical reflections. Whereas the artists presented their work as a “design practice” aimed at new forms of “agency” and new forms of perceptive modalities, ultimately aiming at a reinvention of political structures, geologists are mainly concerned with keeping tabs on the geological epochs. It is all about time, strata, and sedimentation. Hard science. And yet … For when the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, speaking in the auditorium, refers to the architecture around him as a fossil in a future layer of sediment it is difficult to not view the world in a Robert Smithson-like light, only now enlarged to encompass a total, planet-wide singularity that oscillates strangely between science-fiction and hard geological facts.
The eight-person curatorial team behind The Anthropocene Project comprises the art historian Flora Lysen, the literary scholars Katrin Klingan and Cordula Hamschmidt, a couple of dramatists, and scientists with the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte. And the curators struck a perfect balance between highly factual informative lectures and the so-called Islands, which had a deliberately entertaining format. These Island presentations were brief, more intense and more performance-oriented and often included artists, e.g. Renée Green, Harun Farocki, and Nikolaus Geyrhalter. The Islands shared the same overall choreography: four participants would take it in turns to present an object and talk about it. I shall highlight only a few among a field of very strong presentations: Jan Zalasiewicz brought his cat Filo and gave an eloquently elegant presentation with a sad point: the animals who will be successful in the Anthropocene epoch are domesticated animals which, like runaway house cats, let themselves be adopted by the new mega-urbane habitats where they live like a kind of unwanted organic waste. Ursula K. Heise, a professor of English, brought a bunch of feathers from a Mexican bird to stage a presentation that was also about man-made animal habitats – what geologists call “anthromes”. The editor of Cabinet and professor of History Daniel Rosenberg brought a particularly interesting object: a copy of one of Western culture’s very first drawn timelines. “Historians now seem absolute certain: Jesus was born in 4 BC,” was his drily witty opening for an exemplary presentation that tied in directly with a book written by Rosenberg in collaboration with Anthony Crafton: Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline. A visually stunning book and well worth reading. Rosenberg’s point was as follows: Even though we subscribe to a secular perception of time we have not yet torn ourselves free from Christianity’s somewhat rudimentary linear perception of time, which was developed at a time when the question of identifying an absolute beginning and an absolute end to time was of crucial theological importance. Christianity’s eschatological “fever” still seems to haunt our cultural fantasies. We must, then, develop new ways of orienting ourselves in time if we wish to render visible the field of heterogenic temporalities that produce the anthropocene reality.
Of course there was a philosophical point to the curators’ decision to let these Islands centre on objects. We humans are so deeply embedded in complex networks of things, technologies, and matter that a narrative about us will unavoidably become a narrative that takes things in themselves as their point of departure. Indeed, a break with the anthropocentric worldview we have inherited via Christianity and humanism was a recurring theme at the conference.
Is the Anthropocene a new cosmology?
The geologists have, then, established the 1950s as the beginning of the Anthropocene. This was also the decade that saw the first man ever to parachute from space – the pilot Joseph Kittinger. Kittinger subsequently spoke of the experience of falling from such a height: “There’s no way you can visualize the speed. There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception”. Kittinger felt that he was suspended in the air, immobile above the earth, but in reality he had broken the sound barrier and was moving at supersonic speed to a point somewhere above Northern America.
The unavoidable and irreversible planetary changes heralded by the Anthropocene mark a leap into a radically unfamiliar future. Like Kittinger we do not yet have any firm points of reference to help us visualise the speed and depth of the changes that have been set in motion. As Lorraine Daston, a historian of science with the Max-Planck-Institute, said from the stage: “We are living in a new reality, but we cannot yet represent this reality to ourselves. The conceptual framework of our understanding of the world has started to flow like hot magma. The Anthropocene challenges us to come up with a new metaphysics”.
Three themes in particular turned up again and again in the many presentations and subsequent discussions. Firstly: the need for making a break with anthropocentrism and for recognising that such a break can be effected by reimagining the concept of agency. For if systems created by humans have become a force with the strength to change the planet, and if these forces are either out of control or gaining some measure of autonomy, who or what is acting in the Anthropocene reality? And how do we produce knowledge on this issue that can be translated into bodily agency and new perceptive formats? Secondly: the need for new forms of temporal orientation. The philosopher Dipesh Chakrabarty put it in the following terms: “So far we have told the story of ourselves on a shallow timescale. The Anthropocene is an opportunity to tell the story of deep time”. Thirdly: How can the concept of “Life” even be defined within a reality that has definitively left behind a range of binary opposites which used to make it possible to establish reasonably firm boundaries between living and dead, artificial and natural? In this context the anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli, based on her fieldwork among Australian aboriginals, advocated an expansion of what she calls “carbon imagination”, for at present it recognises only “biotic lifeforms”. Povinelli asked the very concrete question of how, in a capitalist Australian society, one can work to ensure recognition of “geotic lifeforms” too.
A promising beginning
While Documenta 13 may have presented original projects and elegantly choreographed sequences of work, the show nevertheless tripped itself up rather inelegantly in its attempt at setting out co-ordinates for a new cosmological mindset beyond anthropocentrism. The Anthropocene Project had a far more successful beginning: it represents an opening towards a new cosmology carried by acute need and intellectual curiosity in equal measure. And it should be noted that this cosmological mindset is not based on ancient mysticism or pre-modern conceptions; the concept is firmly oriented towards the world and towards the realm of matter; it engages in the closest possible dialogue with contemporary science, but at the same time it sees a need for an experimental expansion of the generation of visuals and concepts that in turn produce our shared cultural worldviews. In other words there is every reason in the world to keep an eye on The Anthropocene Project over the course of the next two years.