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Inescapable Out-Of-Phaseness : An Interview With João Florêncio. Photo by Lizzy Burt (http://lizzycan.com)

"Powering Imagination: An Interview with Nettrice Gaskins." Photo: Nettrice R. Gaskins. “Alternate Futures (Lockdown) build,” 2010. Courtesy of the artist and IBM Exhibition Space.

"Why Are We Doing Art at All? An Interview with Eiko Honda." Photo: Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

"We Can’t Say Where It Goes: Heather Davis & Etienne Turpin In Conversation With Caroline Picard"

"In The Late Afternoon of Modernism: An Interview with Graham Harman." Photo by Olympia Orlova-Vilberg.

"The Multispecies World Of Technology: An Interview With Elaine Gan And Bettina Stoetzer."

"The Video is a Basket is a Telescope: An Interview with Rohini Devasher." Photo: Rohini Devasher, “Ghosts-in-the-machine”, Single channel video, sound, 6 minutes, 2006.

"The Aesthetic Origins Of The Anthropocene: An Interview With Jeremy Bolen, Emily Eliza Scott, And Andrew Yang." Photo courtesy of the HKW.

"Politics Of A Planetary Future: An Interview With Ravi Agarwal." Photo: Ravi Agarwal, Ecological Manifesto series, 2015. Courtesy of artist.

"Older Than Most of Human History: An Interview with Chuck Cannon."

"Reading With My Whole Body: An Interview With Essi Kausalainen." Photo: Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016. Courtesy of artist.

"An Opening To Imagine The Present: A Conversation With Cymene Howe And Anand Pandian."

"Conceptions of Plant Life: An Interview with Giovanni Aloi." Photo: Giovanni Aloi, “Windows,” 2014. Courtesy of artist.

"Plant Humans Of The Future: An Interview With Saya Woolfalk." Photo: Saya Woolfalk Installation at the Seattle Art Museum in the Disguise Exhibit, 2015. Photo by Nathaniel Willson.

August in the Anthropocene

August 15, 2016 | Published Articles, Writing

This post and its subsequent interviews were originally published on Bad at Sports during the month of August, 2016.

Last April I had the opportunity to go to Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue, a ten-day conference at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin; I attended as a journalist working jointly for Bad at Sports and the HKW. My intentions were twofold: 1. To conduct a series of interviews with participants. 2. To make a comic about my experience and some of the seminar conversations. The comic will take some time, but the interviews will appear on Bad at Sports this August, along with additional interviews I have since conducted after the conference ended. The topic at hand is The Anthropocene: a contested term, according to which humanity has a direct, geologic impact on planetary systems and cycles. Is it a fad? What does art have to do with it? And how might we conceive of a sense of agency?

Those questions came to mind with great urgency last spring. It’s uncanny, after all, to sit in a room with 30-100+ academics—all with impressive and various credentials ranging from evolutionary biology, philosophy, physics, law, economics, art, colonialism, activism, etc.—as they discussed our dismal prospects for the future through interactive presentations about agriculture, land grabbing practices, data mining, and oil pipelines. To paint a crude picture: we live in the Sixth Great Extinction (for a list of the preceding five mass extinction events go here), a very small group of individuals hold the majority of the human wealth, stock markets operate at a furious rate without any ethical sensibility, and—often in the name of progress—a methodology of subjugation, extraction, and consumption has dominated humanity’s interaction with itself, its environment, and all forms of life and materiality between for last century at least. It’s no secret that our reliance on fossil fuel is detrimental to long term survival, yet it seems beyond any current collective ability to extricate ourselves from relying upon the sludge of dinosaur bones to power skyscrapers, cars, or grow corn. Plastic, similarly, ends up in the Pacific Ocean, swirling around like a tiny ethereal cloud-island, filling the bellies of fish, birds, whales, et al. with tiny microscopic particles…but to stop using plastic would upturn the order of an entire global economy. Think also of the alternative energy sources: nuclear power plants that store nuclear waste indefinitely and not very well because no one can agree on where to put it. As such, it remains in short-term storage facilities of company lots—like bizarre packages of sleeping trauma, vulnerable and waiting for some rupture to burst out, actualize, and what then?

The extent to which our world is about to change is phenomenal and it’s easy to feel helpless upon the disintegrating stage of co-existence. As some have suggested, the end of the world has already happened and the present moment we share is that delay between the sound of the explosion and the consequence of its blast. But, let’s resist resigning to fantasies of the apocalypse. They are too seductive and simplistic. And perhaps the worst form of privilege is that one that abdicates responsibility in the face of suffering. How instead to walk the line between awareness and humility? To study post-heroics and remember that many worlds have ended already. During a CSTMS panel discussion with Eduardo Kohn and Colin Hayan, Donna Haraway asked,”What is it to write in a time of great extinction?…The questions that often come under the label of the Anthropocene—that is to say, the accelerated rates of extinction, the accelerated writing into the waters, into the earth itself, into the fossil record, into the gases, into the species assemblages, into the molecules, the accelerated writing of the earth in accelerated extinctions and accelerated threats of serious system collapse of all sorts—truly is the situation in which human beings and other critters must figure out how to ask each other, how or if to go on. These are not sentimental questions, though I am not against sentiment…but the question that joins us today is posed by Thom van Dooren and [Deborah Bird Rose], What is it to write in a time of extinctions and exterminations and iterative conquests,  permanent war, and genocides at all sorts of scales, that include other critters..as well as human beings?”

With that in mind, I appealed to the generosity of others: friends, strangers, artists, educators, philosophers, and scientists through a series of interviews with the hope that we might talk about these questions and, at the very least, concentrate on the uncertainty of our times as soberly as possible. Perhaps in that meditation we can, together, amplify our awareness, attending to the many acts of disappearance and the energy it takes to bear witness. Every day for the month of August, I’ll be sharing a new conversation with you, plus comics on Sunday. Stay tuned. Email me if you want to discuss and thank you for reading.

Posts include:

08.30: Saya Woolfalk on her ongoing sci-fi/anthropology installation

08.29: Essi Kausalainen discusses performance strategies and plants

08.28: Robert Burnier on virtual and material terrains (repost from 2014).

08.27: Heidi Norton looks at houseplants as a medium (repost from 2014).

08.26: A. Laurie Palmer on her recent book, In the Aura of a Hole (repost from 2016 ).

08.25: Linda Tegg talks about her approach to photography, more than human subjects, and grass installations.

08.24: Cymene Howe & Anand Pandian discuss their collaborative projectLexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.

08.23: Zoe Todd on fish, multiplicity, and indigenous studies in the Anthropocene.

08.22: Art Orienté objet discusses their horse plasma transfusion performance, May the Horse Live in Me (repost from 2014).

08.21: Golden Spike: Rock Shop of the Anthropocene (Sunday Comic).

08.20: Rebecca Mir Grady talks about her artist book series about ecological events (and disasters) SHE IS RESTLESS.

08.19: Jenni Nurmenniemi describes curating Frontier, an artist residency fostering multispecies concerns (an audio version of this conversation is available here).

08.18: Katherine Behar Eben Kirksey explore ethics and robot labor through Behar’s Roomba-Rubber Tree performance, High Hopes (Deux).

08.17: Giovanni Aloi describes his interest in animal studies, art, and what new insight plant studies might offer.

08.16: Eiko Honda considers how terms like “Anthropocene” refract through different cultures by way of translation.

08.15: Mark Payne uses his background as a classicist to propose what a “shared life” might mean today.

08.14: Animal Bones as Artistic Medium (Sunday Comic, repost) Rebecca Beachy’s Feb 2016 exhibition at New Capital, Chicago.

08.13: Samuel Hertz on the Aerocene and his work composing multidimensional soundscapes.

08.12: Robert Zhao Renhui talks about his 2014 photo show and the unnaturalness of goldfish (repost from 2013).

08.11: Chuck Cannon on tree science, tree sex, and why trees need to be kinky if they are going to survive global warming.

08.10: Lindsey French, Gulsah Mursaloglu, Sarah Ross, & A. Laurie Palmer, discuss their collaborative exhibition along the Calumet River.

08.09: Ravi Agarwal on the link between activism, ecology, and artistic production.

08.08: Rohini Devasher talks about her interest in amateur astronomy, the principle of wonder, and video feedback.

08.07: Tracing a Path from Hard-Edge Abstraction to the Science of Flight (Sunday comic, repost) Jacob Hashimoto’s Dec 2015 show at Rhona Hoffman, Chicago.

08.06: Heather Davis & Etienne Turpin talk about their recent editorial collaboration, Art in the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2015),

08.05: Nettrice Gaskins describes virtual art installations, Afrofuturism 3.0, and fostering imagination.

08.04: João Florêncio on performance, the Anthropocene, and the complicated ethics that embracing strangers requires.

08.03: Elaine GanBettina Stoetzer talk about their work on Feral Technologies and Ruderal Ecologies with Anna Tsing.

08.02: Graham Harman talks about his latest book Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, (Polity, 2016), using the Dutch East India Company as a primary example.

08.01: Jeremy Bolen, Emily Eliza Scott, & Andrew Yang talk about how the Anthropocene narrative has political implications (an audio version of this conversation is available here).

"Divining Transhuman Space," installation view, D Gallery (otherwise known as Philip vonZweck's office), Chicago, 2014.

"Time Time (Fukushima)," 2014. Gouache on cardstock.

"Pinball Umwelt 1 (Gallery 400)", 2014. Gouache on cardstock.

"Pinball Umwelt 2 (La Box)", 2014. Gouache on cardstock.

"Divining Transhuman Space," installation view, D Gallery (otherwise known as Philip vonZweck's office), Chicago, 2014.

"Divining Transhuman Space," installation view, D Gallery (otherwise known as Philip vonZweck's office), Chicago, 2014.

"Soft Animal Noses," 2014. Gouache on paper.

Divining Transhuman Space

November 10, 2013 | Exhibitions, Visual Work

D Gallery, 636 S Wabash, ste. 722, Chicago IL .:. Opening Reception Friday Nov 8, 12:45-1:45 .:. Exhibition runs through January 2013.

Hijacking the 9-5 office of Philip von Zweck’s D Gallery, I installed a series of visual models, notes and computations in an effort to trace the transformative animal potential in art and space. These notes entertain the Anthropocene, the End Times, and the limits of human imagination, drawing unreasonable speculations out into models of structured, institutional space.

“This is what happened at 3400 feet — we had reached a stand of red wood trees in an area that had never been cut and my ears popped.” Lyn Hejinian, My Life

“This is what makes the world…I believe this to be the fundamental dynamic. Transition. The point where one thing becomes another. It is what makes you, the city, the world, what they are. And that is the theme that I’m interested in. The zone where the disparate become the whole. The hybrid zone.” China Miéville, Perdido Street Station

“Insofar as the animal knows neither being nor nonbeing, neither open nor closed, it is outside of being; it is outside in an intimacy more internal than any closedness. To let the animal be would then mean: to let it be outside of being.” Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal

 

I saw, or thought I saw, or have convinced myself I saw a vastness that dwarfed the desert sky. A yawning gap of Leviathan proportions… Spread across the emptiness, streaming away from us with cavernous perspective in all directions and dimensions, encompassing lifetimes and hugeness with each intricate knot of metaphysical substance, was a web. It’s substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colors, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of a starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh… The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces. (1)

A transcendental spider with many, tiny, human hands haunts the pages of China Mieville’s book, Perdido Street Station. Humans call this beast “The Weaver,” other species “The Mad Dancing God.” It is unpredictable, and makes few appearances in the book; its speech is barely rational. In one instance, however, it picks up a group of protagonists, pulls them behind their material world (a world largely in step with any of our contemporary cities) through a portal, and into an entirely other dimension. Our protagonists marvel at the discovery at this space — it defies comprehension and can later be relayed only as a dream, or feeling of vastness. This new dimension contains the prior, familiar, urban one, while simultaneously containing countless others. It is like a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the score of Life. Befitting a spider, it evidently looks like a web.

While Miéville’s account takes place on a fantastic scale within the pages of science fiction, it has resonances in our, relatively, banal world as well. Consider, for instance, the work of Jacob von Uexküll, who devised schematic diagrams of world views according to various species. Every creature has an “umwelt” — “the environment-world that is constituted by a more or less broad series of elements that he calls ‘carriers of significance’” or “the only things that interest the animal.” [2] This umwelt is the epicenter of any creature’s experience; it defines the way that creature filters and engages its environment. The umwelt is defined by a creature’s sensory abilities — what kind of light does it see, for instance? — its biological needs — what does it eat and where does its food typically reside — and anatomical constraints — can this creature fly, for instance, and how does that automatically limit or expand its desires? These countless conditions, drives, capacities filter that creature’s sense of the world to such an extent that whatever lies beyond it’s grasp may as well not exist. In a chapter of Agamben’s The Open, for instance, some of Uexküll’s study on a tick is recounted: a tick given no opportunity to fulfill itself and attempt to feed on warm blood lays dormant in a laboratories for 18 years.

…(for the tick), the Umwelt is reduced to only three carriers of significance (1) The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, (2) The temperature of 37 degrees (corresponding to the blood of all mammals), (3) The (hairy typology of mammals)… [3]It would therefore be impossible for any single creature to get beyond its own umwelt in order to see the “bigger picture.” I like the Miéville’s passage because we get a first-hand, albeit fictional, account of what stepping outside an umwelt might look like. The narrator expresses confusion, fascination, deep feeling and recognition for the strange landscape before his eyes. “It’s substance was known to me,” he says. But it is so far outside his experience, he cannot absorb, process, and remember what he sees. The Weaver’s “web” defies his semiotic capacity.

x

Morton champions species fluidity. In The Ecological Thought (University of Harvard Press, 2010), he refers to animals as “strange strangers” and addresses the way we characterize our relationship to the world, describing its origins and shortcomings within Darwinian philosophy. For Morton, the primary affect created by our encounter with non-human life is a sense of the uncanny. A creature returns our gaze, breathes and reacts; it appears to possess familiar feelings. Yet it is also irretrievably Other: we face the near impossibility of forming a cognitive relationship with it. According to Morton, the more we examine our environment, the more this feeling of the uncanny persists, particularly as we try to trace out a narrative of progress wherein one species leads to the next. “All organisms are monsters insofar as they arechimeras, made from pieces of other creatures.”[4] Perhaps as a way to temper that feeling of unnerving estrangement, and in an effort to comprehend (and codify) our environment, we have historically developed intricate systems of classification, parsing this plant from that animal. This system is so convincing, so absorbing in its complexity, rarely do we experience the bounds of our own umwelt. Still, those systems are unstable and largely arbitrary. Rather than living in a neat system of one species versus another, the borders between species are porous and constantly shifting. In fact, we are so aware of the interconnected nature of things (different species, habitats, climates, etc.) that the background and foreground become murky. Morton likens this to an ever changing “mesh” of which all creatures are a part. “The mesh isn’t a background against which the strange stranger appears. It is the entanglement of all strangers.”[5] In that mesh we see the image of Nature, not as an over-yonder place, outside of humanity, but rather a realm that humankind occupies and shares with all species; this myriad tempest of life, “the mesh” of which we are a part, is comprised by ever changing, inescapable, messy borders. read more