Hanna Husberg. In the Vast Ocean of Air, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Open Access: A Conversation with Sria Chatterjee and Hanna Husberg

October 25, 2016 | Published Articles, Writing


Although the seminars of “Anthropocene Campus: The Technosphere Issue” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin took place months ago (April 14–22, 2016), conversations and collaborations continue to develop and spill out from that place and time. This process of unfolding is a particularly important outcome of the original nine-day conference because it invites collaborators to explore Anthropocene topics with one another, on their own terms, and in locations around the world. Sria Chatterjee and Hanna Husberg are currently engrossed in that process, sharing the resources and insights of their respective fields to address the question of rights and accessibility.

In addition to being a published poet, Sria Chatterjee is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art and Archeology at Princeton. Her research is focused on modern India and questions around art, activism, and ecology. Hanna Husberg is a visual artist inquiring into how humans perceive and relate to their immediate and extended surroundings in times characterized by human-induced climate change. Currently on a fellowship in China, Husberg is pursuing a PhD in practice at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Together they question the idea of access, drawing connections between theoretical and physical rights to our shared place, Earth.

Caroline Picard: Could you speak a bit about your experiences at the HKW’s “Anthropocene Campus” this past April? How did it influence your work?

Hanna Husberg: I was particularly touched by the generosity of the people organizing and participating in the program. The campus was, however, an exceptional space that is only possible to maintain for a certain amount of time before everyone needs to get back to everyday obligations. A question many of us were left with was how to take this further, keep this energy going, and productively make use of all the experiences and the possibilities that one could feel were in those rooms.

We all have distinctive means of making sense of the world we live in, and with major shifts concerning the livability of the planet, it is important to use different means of disseminating information. Sria and I have a shared background in the arts, but we also have contrasting experiences and practices that might be complementary and could strengthen our individual practices.

Sria Chatterjee: While my academic work focuses on the relationships between art, politics, and ecology in India and looks at perceptions of nature and systems of knowledge in a historical and historiographical context, the urgency of rethinking ways of naming, knowing, and being in the contemporary planetary crises that Hanna just mentioned has been pushing my creative and curatorial interests as well.

CP: I understand, Sria, that you’re working on a poetry manuscript that addresses “the borderlands between human and nonhuman consciousness.” How do poetry and academic language provide different points of access to thought and experience?

SC: The manuscript that you mention plays with the surreal nature of the contemporary environmental crisis and its broader politics with imagined objects and processes. “Behind every real object,” Baudrillard writes, “there is a dream object.”1 Turning that around, I am interested in the fluid relations between dream logic and the logic of late capitalism (which in Frederic Jameson’s iteration suggests that every position on postmodernism today is necessarily, explicitly or implicitly, a political stance on multinational capitalism). What I particularly value about making poems is the recklessness that it can afford, one in which I can experiment with images, language, sensibilities, and perceptive capacities both human and imagined. My hope is to challenge existing epistemologies and asymmetrical power relations as much as to harness a deep self-doubt about the primacy of human perception that might present a reader with sets of dilemmas about what goes on around and inside us.

CP: Does that dovetail with your work together?

SC: In our collaboration, which is still very new since it grew out of the HKW campus, the idea is to work as an artist-curator team in which the roles are reversible and contingent on each other. In bringing our interests together, one of the things that became relevant for us is the idea of artistic research and the potency of field-based research, artistic practice, and speculative experiments that can open up to explore questions about the governmentality (the methods of control or governance) of addressing climate change, which are also central concerns in Hanna’s work.

HH: For some time, I have been developing an artistic research project,Troubled Atmosphere. It focuses on the materiality, relevance, and effect of air and considers our possible and impossible relationships to our environment in a time characterized by human-induced climate change.

CP: I read about that project on Hybrid Matters: you examine how new human-made gases and chemicals are released into the atmosphere, but the emphasis is on air, or atmosphere, rather than material objects.

HH: Well, air is literally what is closest at hand. Air is both inside and outside of us, constantly. It is disrespectful of borders. It enters the pores of (what has been regarded as) distinct bodies. It blurs the boundaries between subjects and environments and even those within subjects. Air is evasive and can multiply. Although it surrounds and pervades all, the air of one location is unlike that of another. It is essentially an aggregate and a carrier, and it is composed of different elements even as it is co-produced and shared.

CP: It reminds me of something Lisa Blackman once wrote about the hierarchy of senses: culturally, we tend to privilege sight over the other senses, especially smell, which is perceived as more vulgar. In her book, The Body: Key Concepts, she suggests this is partly because we don’t have any control over whether or not smells enter our bodies.

HH: Air is extremely familiar yet difficult to grasp, and as such I find it helpful in thinking about climate. The invisibility of air has also brought me to inquire into questions of perceptibility, of how things seem to come into existence, and the tools and instruments that have come to structure our apprehension of the environment.

CP: How does that come across in your work?

HH: My research is developed through different projects that are structured through specific case studies, like the Maldives and Svalbard, for example. While these are geographically distant locations, they are connected through the events of climate change. I am also spending some time in Beijing this fall. These locations have been useful for me to situate the research and to apprehend the slow violence that is implicit in the compositional changes of the atmosphere.

CP: I’m curious about the result of your research and what it lends to art. Maybe another way of asking that same question is: how do you differentiate between research and art?

HH: Well, following the PhD curriculum, I’m currently engaged in artistic research based on the premise that art can be understood as “a space for social, political, cultural, and economic conflicts, in which claims of knowledge as much as truth are negotiated.” The production of artistic knowledge becomes a subject matter of research. Basically it pushes you to critically reflect and actively shape your position as a producer or mediator of knowledge. Artistic research encourages experimental modes of artistic production that reconfigure established disciplines of knowledge. In this sense, it can also be understood as a process of negotiating boundaries. In practice, it has pushed me to convene with researchers across different disciplines and to address questions I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. It has also included sharing and learning from and with each other.

Read more here.

Sria Chatterjee. On Leaving, 2016. Manuscript, first page. Courtesy of the artist.

Sria Chatterjee. On Leaving, 2016. Manuscript, first page. Courtesy of the artist.