The word ‘Anthropocene’, an epoch designator dating from the 1960s, isn’t currently recognized by Microsoft Word’s spellcheck – nor, probably, by the average person. That it denotes a three-hundred-year-old ecological process, humankind’s geophysical footprint on planet earth, is part of the problem: we’re only now naming it and accepting culpability at a point when the earth probably won’t recover from its impact. A video shown in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s recent nexus of exhibitions, under the overarching title of The Anthropocene Project, found Sybil Seitzinger, a scientist and the Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, asserting the psychological value of this embryonic nomenclature, and predicting we’ll soon look to inhabit other planets. We have enough conclusive evidence of irreversible change already, she says; humanity is now facing up to what it knows, and it’s in the interests of data pooling that HKW has operated, since January 2013 and via eight consecutive ‘Hearings’ (including this one), as a discursive forum on what has brought about this tipping point, and what – if anything – might be done in the face of it.
The venue has hosted, alongside publications, seminars and lectures on everything from ‘Slow Media’ to ‘Petrogeology and Denial’, two substantial exhibitions, or exhibition clusters. The first, Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke’s essayistic, monochromatic, dauntingly text-heavy The Whole Earth (2013), correlated California’s 1960s and ’70s counterculture with cybernetics, Gaian thinking and our contemporary technocratic panopticon. The second, coordinated in-house by Franke, came in three sections: here were projects by the painter and writer Adam Avikainen and the filmmakers The Otolith Group, plus the fourth presentation – by Franke, Armin Linke and Territorial Agency (John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog) – in a documentary-driven series titled the Anthropocene Observatory.
In Avikainen’s room, alongside multi-panel abstract paintings that were apparently a collaboration between the artist and the weather, was a carousel of dangling hooks holding numbered photographs of scenes often interlacing culture and nature. One could choose a photograph, walk to a lightbox and fix it in place. And then locate, within a brace of folders, a corresponding haiku-like email sent by the artist. My photo was of an ambiguous scrunch of paper, its surface tinted black and white, sitting in grass: a miniature artificial mountain. The email, to artists’ supplies company Golden Artist Colors Inc., NY, read: ‘Dear Friend / Titanium White poured over mind’s mouth / black whaler cavity’. The body is reinscribed in organic physical space (the viewer trundling back and forth to assemble the work; the artist very much outdoors), with implications of private beatitude, but it comes across as heavy-handed: one suspects the series would have worked better as a book.
The Otolith Group, meanwhile, united body and land via a focus on ‘earthquake sensitives’ – people who claim to have the ability to detect earthquakes, and who are resultantly alert to strange animal activity or who feel physically pained when faultlines are aquiver. No oracular judgements trouble the glacial film Medium Earth (2013), with its footage of the Southern California desert, San Andreas Fault highways and cracked underground car parks, nor Who Does the Earth Think It Is? (2014): vitrined predictive reports by earthquake sensitives, variously lucid and scattershot, sent to the United States Geological Survey. These exemplify a moment when ambient dread sanctions the opinions of cranks, leaving truth as an open question; when needing to know what will happen to our unstable planet drives seismometer technology both scientific and psychosomatic. There was no shortage of thoughtfulness here in the careful cinematography but the film, interjecting brief voiceovers with long shots of rock and roaring road, frequently confused rumbling sloth with portent and, to me, seriously dragged, though that may say as much about my tech-accelerated consciousness as anything else.
The dozens of videotaped interviews, split across a half-dozen viewing stations in Anthropocene Observatory (which also featured some informative bulletin boards in the lobby), mostly zipped by, yet the whole was expansive and ramifying, taking in complexities and loopholes in carbon trading; the evolution of maritime law; the measurement of pollution over centuries; plans for the 40% of emissions that aren’t carbon dioxide and Bruno Latour’s comparison of our moment – which asks the developed world to accept its responsibilities and the developing world to use cleaner power – with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. One learnt a lot, but the biggest nudge may be with regard to cultural classifications. Outwardly this was unadorned documentary. Yet, as several hours passed, a web of uneasy relations invisibly expanded. The density, shifting significance and refusal to editorialize felt, paradoxically, more art-like and conceptually nimble than the ostensibly artistic works that surrounded it. And so Seitzinger’s point was made again: for this titanic subject, we need a new vocabulary.