Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer, Frontier Climates, 2017

Against the Anthropocene - A conversation with TJ Demos - Reflections #19

Issue no4
Aug- Sep 2023
inkomen & eindexamens 2023

What can the art world do about the climate change? Alice Smits is talking to TJ Demos about his thought provoking essay Against the Anthropocene?

—Alice Smits It seems to me that many writers on the Anthropocene start their argument with critical comments on its name, - usually referring to its universalizing tendency by making the Anthropos –universal man – responsible for our ecological problems without distinguishing between perpetuators and victims of climate change- then go on to accept its framework. In Against the Anthropocene, in which as in your previous work you bring postcolonial discourse to the discussion to focus on issues of climate justice, - you go a step further and dismantle the Anthropocene thesis, not as the progressive discourse as many take it, but as a continuation of neoliberal capitalistic technological mastery over the earth that needs to be resisted at all costs. Given that the term evokes rejection from the start, why do we stick with it? Why not just decide to use your preferred term the Capitalocene, which points to a specific ideology, or Is there a positive reason why we stay with the Anthropocene?

—TJ Demos First off, the Anthropocene is likely here to stay as an official term for our geological epoch, as it’s been endorsed by the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Union of Geological Sciences. So the question now is how to engage critically within that field. We still don’t have to accept the conceptualization they are proposing, owing to the reasons you mention, and other terms—Capitalocene, Gynocene, Homogenocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene—are critical, as I argue in the book, in terms of opening different, much-needed vantage points. There are also a few examples of people working critically with the term, as in the recent publication Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, dedicated to creative approaches to the Anthropocene largely through models of multispecies ethnography and anthropology. But even in that project I don’t see much of a critical engagement with the terminological proposal itself and its implications, which I address in Against the Anthropocene.

—Alice Smits Could we speak of a good and a bad Anthropocene. A bad Anthropocene you describe in your publication as one continuing a humanist tradition of even more technological fixes in its determination to engineer the earth. But there also seems a good version, residing in various forms of post humanism relocating the position of the human vis a vis other life forms. It is possible to read many publications on the Anthropocene without any names of the culprits of environmental damage being mentioned. Is this kind of writing on the Anthropocene – for example by some of the important writers on the Anthropocene such as Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour - equally depolitisizing or esthetising or how do you reflect on this kind of writing?

—TJ Demos In the major theoretical proposals of how to think about the Anthropocene — whether it is Morton or Latour — there remains a tendency to theorize in very abstract terms. Part of the risk in doing so is that one loses the political specificity of causality behind environmental transformation and the fact that it’s not human species being that is causing the problems, but rather particular governmental institutions and corporations, that have supported the petrocapitalist development that has brought environmental transformation. Latour does attempt to point in this direction, but still I find in his work -though it can be very provocative and illuminating,- an absence of the nuts and bolds of neoliberal globalization and its long history of emergence from colonialism, slavery and imperialism. As a result it fails to equip us to analyze and act in political ways; rather, it stays in the seminar room, speaking the language of abstract theoretization. But we are living in a time of enormous and grave implications for our near future environmental conditions. Life as we know it is at risk and now is the time to put pressure on discourse and practice, including Anthropocene discussions and the climate-change approaches it legitimizes, in order to attempt to support what some term a necessary “great transition” towards de-cabornization. In Against the Anthropocene I insist that approaches to climate change must integrate ways to address economical inequality, social injustice, and environmental violence. This, we don’t really hear about in Latour or Morton, or many other writers on the Anthropocene. Donna Haraway is an exception, because she is very aware that the conditions of transformation also demand a rethinking of language itself where it is crucial, even impossible not, to address politics, social justice, as well as indigeneity and colonialism. As such, her work offers an important corrective to depoliticized narrations of the Anthropocene, and my work has benefited tremendously from dialogue with hers.

—Alice Smits Your book focuses in particular on the visualization of the Anthropocene. You observe how a lot of Anthropocene photography is taken from an areal perspective, exactly not engaging with the earth but distancing and abstracting developing a sublime image of industrial technology and destruction. The sublime in its original sense occurred in times of crises and allowed the viewer to watch events that otherwise are unbearable to witness from a safe position. In your book you speak of the invisibility of environmental discourse and I wondered – as it seems to me that we are surrounded by images of hurricanes, melting ice caps, overflowing cities - is it not more so that we are becoming anesthetized by this kind of representations of disaster?

—TJ Demos You’re right: there is a tendency to distance lived experience from catastrophe, and at the same time visualize it in ways that accord with sublime representations from the past, where we find an element of strange attraction, even beauty, in environmental destruction. This is clear in the epic photography of Edward Burtynsky and Louis Helbig, which I discuss in the book, especially the latter’s catalogue titled Beautiful Destruction dedicated to picturing the Albertan Tar Sands, where you have that relation literalized. We are familiar with media scenes of disaster, and its images are often shown from above, from anesthetizing perspectives, which tend to confirm a kind of sublime apocalypticism. Many are definitely mesmerized by images of the end of the world! On the one hand, we’re offered a hyper-visibility of catastrophism, on the other, we’re depirived of substantial and complex stories about how people on the ground are living and dying in these conditions. In US corporate media, this is extreme: visuality is policed by ideological processes, offering remote sensing of hurricanes, but failing to provide insight into the complex conditions of what causes environmental violence.

—Alice Smits You define the typical visualization of the Anthropocene as consisting of composite images of satellites which looks like photography but is an overlayering of data presented as a scientific neutral representation but is in fact highly ideological giving no information on locations, sources etc. To this you oppose a photographic documentary practice. Many speak these days of a post-truth society in which alternative facts no longer seem to be confined to a critical strategy for the arts. There is a new focus on documentary practice as a search for a sense of truth. Is your emphasis on photographic documentary practices motivated by this?

—TJ Demos Absolutely. The conditions of truth in documentary practices is very much at stake these days, especially given the diminishment of the factual within corporate media and reality TV-show presidents. Independent thinkers, artists and activist who operate in the cultural sphere are doing important work investigating this quandary. The quintessential practice here is the Forensic Architecture project in London, including the work of Eyal Weizman, modeling new forums of truth in the public sphere. As I argue, remote-sensing satellite imagery shows one aspect of climate change. Its visuality, appearing on many popular science websites, emerges out of Cold War technology of the military industrial complex, and now tends to support techno-solutions to climate change, including geo-engineering. I’ve found that this is a privileged narrative goal of the Anthropocene thesis (including that of Latour’s): to support dubious attempts at techno-fixes that fail to address the petrocapitalist causes of climate breakdown, and there’s massive interests (governmental, military, and corporate) that endorse this view.

—Alice Smits You refer to art collectives as World of Matter bringing art and ecology together in an engaged practice. What kind of media strategy do they use in terms of reception and distribution that is different from mainstream media? How does it create a different kind of spectatorship, one that is actively engaged rather than one of merely consuming images?

—TJ Demos World of Matter explores documentary practice and screen-based imagery, mapping cartographies and research- and interview-based structures of presentation, in order to investigate resource extraction and energy, food, and water systems. While shown in art galleries, their work is also presented on websites, which provides open-access viewing, an openness that also is reflected in the diverse geographies that they investigate, from South America to Africa, the Middle East to the Arctic. In this sense, it’s a creative media ecology and virtual platform for relational geographies that intervenes in the structures of contemporary art that tend to enclose artworks in systems of privatization and commodification, largely circulating in institutions in the EuroAmerican context. Forensic Architecture similarly operates on multiple platforms, in relation to multiple places, and is dedicated to making their work publicly available. This is crucial if the arts wish to be relevant to questions at stake today in terms of how we organize and reinvent new forms of life that are at once ecologically sustainable and socially just.

—Alice Smits What role do you think art can contribute to activism?

—TJ Demos Many practitioners are in fact dedicated to breaking down the barriers between the two, and perhaps the terms themselves require rethinking and redefinition. If the arts have any claim on politics—and I think they do—it is through multiple operations of representation, affective imagery and stories, and social forms of intervention in systems of visuality, institutions, and modes of organization. If we extend aesthetics beyond the art object, following thinkers like Jacques Rancière and others, then we find creativity infusing everyday life and politics, where it expresses the capacity of what Haraway terms “re-worlding”—inventing new forms of life that can be matter of sustainable living, and/or realizing modalities of social justice, experimenting with rights of nature and multispecies belonging, relating anti-racist practices to the invention of postanthropocentric futures. We can consider collective manifestations like Standing Rock, in opposition to petrocapitalist infrastructure and Indigenous oppression, or Liberate Tate, challenging fossil-fuel sponsorship of cultural institutions and anti-democratic governing systems, as only the most recent visible examples involving an expanded conception of activist art and political culture. If climate change represents an historically unprecedented challenge, then it is a challenge to the cultural sphere as well to reinvent itself for the Anthropocene, in ways that are urgently critical and interventionist.

—Alice Smits Do the arts to be able to do that need to operate outside of official institutions?

—TJ Demos I am generally for a “both/and” perspective. The problems we confront are so vast and complex that we need multiple approaches both inside and outside institutions. We can not simply support movements for autonomy outside of institutions and politics, which risks surrendering governmental politics to elites; we also need to reclaim institutions for progressive purpose. We need to occupy institutions. We know that corporations have been pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the political process to support their interests. There’s no other choice but to aim to reclaim that process in the interests of democracy—otherwise we remain beholden to oligarchic powers and their fixation on short-term profits that keep us locked into a suicidal path toward climate catastrophe.

Mabe Bethônico, Closer than Cafundó, 2015, video still

—Alice Smits Here in Amsterdam in the last months we held two performances with Fossil Free Culture inspired by Liberate Tate at the Van Gogh Museum protesting its sponsor relationship with Shell, during one of which all were arrested for leaving stains in the museum, some were jailed for three days, which is cynical given Shells reputation as one of the earths greatest polluters. These performances are solely supported by the environmental activist movement and received pretty much no discussion in the art world. The Van Gogh Museum instead went out if its way to state the importance of their sponsor Shell. What do you think is the responsibility of art institutions in this and can artists bring a radical agenda to the art institution?

—TJ Demos Yes, I followed reports on the event, it’s great to see these challenges to cultural institutions spreading. There are many artists and curators who are doing great work, even while dominant art world positions seem at best disinterested in our environmental situation and antagonistic at worse. Art institutions may be operating according to the utopian fantasy of Anthropocene ideology, contending that technology will fix all, relieving us of any necessary change to existing growth-based models and their economies of inequality. The dominant art system is fully enmeshed within growth economics, and it’s not surprising that it would have little interest in radical proposals for smart degrowth ecology, mediated by social justice priorities, as a model of collective survival.

Ursula Biemann, Deep Weather, 2013, video still

—Alice Smits In your book you restrict yourself to activist art practices which are directly confronting climate issues. Do you see a critical space for a more speculative kind of arts that work towards alternative models of being in the world. Or artist working directly with the dirt of the earth in offering more practical based solutions such as in the exhibition Ecoventions by Sue Spaid which is currently presented at de Domijnen in Sittard. Do you see a critical space here or does it miss the point by focusing on the very local and practical?

—TJ Demos I think it is a difficult question, if is a very small scale local intervention that might be minutive to environmental problems. If art does not address the wider conditions that are operating globally, pushing us past tipping points toward planetary disaster, it’s ultimately inadequate. On the other hand, small steps within a local ecologies can have positive effects, building solidarities and providing educational possibilities. I am increasingly interested in interventions that try to operate on regional, national or global levels, that address structural conditions behind environmental transformation, not simply local effects or modest restorations, akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Take the Climate Games project organized during COP21 in Paris in 2015, geared toward putting pressure on one of the most important sites of climate governance—or the lack thereof, owing to corporate sponsorship and anti-democratic practice on behalf of representatives of developed nations. Organised in part by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination—now located in the anti-airport autonomous zone called the Zad in France—Climate Games intervened through diverse models of creative activism, including organizing direct actions to shut down fossil-fuel infrastructure, creating red lines to identify social-justice demands, insisting on popular inclusion in decisions affecting all. Or consider the artwork of Finnish artist Terika Hapooja, who invents non-anthropocentric legal institutions and political parties for a world of multispecies participation and justice, or the video installations of Ursula Biemann and Paulo Taveres, such as Forest Law that addresses the disastrous legacy of oil drilling in the Equadorian Amazon and what indigenous communities are doing to raise the rights of nature, recognized in the new Ecuadorian constitution, to challenge corporate ecocide. As I address them in my book, these are small scale projects, presented in art institutions, but are enormously ambitious speculatively and are important for that reason. They might not have huge impacts in relation to the larger structure of environmental governance, but they do offer points of illumination with which to imagine and realize alternative futures, modes of aesthetic perception to inhabit alternative futures now in emergence. They materialize concepts, politics, and research in aesthetic form, providing spaces for feeling and perception in multisensory arenas, which are unexpected or unfamiliar. These are practices that bring about shifts on micropolitical levels that can also initiate structural transformation, especially where the correlate with social movements, as in the cases of the Zad and Liberate Tate.

—Alice Smits One of the positive things about the Anthropocene which is also acknowledged by you is the bringing together of the sciences and humanities. One of the consequences is, at least here in The Netherlands, an increasing popularity of art science as a genre with universities opening up their labs for artistic research and collaboration while the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences included the arts again after 150 years. You also mention the danger of increasing technocratic problems and solutions and to me it seems that even beyond the content of the arts itself this opening up to different kind of knowledges and democratization of spaces is important in itself. What do you think art can bring to science as a form of knowledge in its own right?

—TJ Demos The sciences produce instrumentalized reason in often highly specialized forms, limited because by disciplinary specialization. The interdisciplinarity introduced by the Anthropocene is welcome especially where it offers chances to think politically about such instrumental and technological reason, particularly where our very lives are at stake. The obvious risk of injecting the arts into the sciences is the refunctioning of art as mere illustration of scientific theory, which is least interesting. However, if the arts can bring critical perspective, becoming an active, participatory agent in interdisciplinary thinking, then this is indeed promising. There are many artists, for instance those mentioned above, insisting on what I term intersectionality as an ecological methodology, insisting on linking environmental transformation to social violence, climate change to economic inequality, unnatural disasters to institutional racism. If the environmental arts joins aesthetics to ethics, then it stands to adopt an important role in thinking scientific research in relation to politics (we know from leading climatologist James Hansen that there’s no neutrality on a moving train). If we can bring social-justice considerations into scientific discussions, that could be extremely productive. There is also a lot of speculative research where the arts offer a platform for creative interdisciplinarity, for experimental methodologies of interaction, that don’t really exist in many other places. Art’s institutions of criticality and creativity offer resources to think and invent aesthetic systems—modes of seeing, perceiving, and feeling—that sciences often consign to irrelevance, but remain crucial to addressing diverse stakeholders. Moreover, the danger of technocracy as the privileged way to addressing climate change disaster is overwhelming right now, especially when geo-engineering becomes the prioritized—but false—solution to living with environmental transformation, as I argue in Against the Anthropocene. Rex Tillerson, for instance, who comes from EXON Mobile and is now a senior figure in the Trump administration, has gone on record recently as saying that climate change is basically “an engineering problem.” Against such views based in technocratic reductionism—which insist on refusing any structural transformation of our present world based in grotesque inequality and catastrophic environmental destruction—the arts and humanities offer a radically different way of thinking, emphasizing creative interdisciplinairity, democratic accountability, equality in who can speak, and inventing aesthetics systems in which all of this can happen. These are the types of practices that I address in the book—those that dare to contemplate and support system change rather than climate change.

—Alice Smits Which seems to be lacking in the enormous amount of large blockbuster exhibitions on the theme of art and ecology we have witnessed over these last years which merely seem to thematize the issue rather than point to such new practices?

—TJ Demos Large-scale exhibitions might offer speculative alternatives and artistic thinking on these questions, but they also participate in the global system of growth-oriented production, which is fossil-fuel intensive at every step, thus complicit with the larger system of causality that has brought about climate change. It is not enough to simply continue the status quo and have more content, even if politically relevant, that deals with environmentalism. If we are to avoid walking of the cliff, then we need large-scale transformation of our integrated systems of production and consumption, including those in the cultural sphere. Museums, in my view, will not be the central agents of such transformation, even though they have enormous potential as public institutions where science and industry are represented and where interventions can be made (consider in this regard the work of Not an Alternative, which got fossil-fuel magnate, neoconservative, and climate change denier David Koch kicked off the board of directors of the American Natural History Museum in New York). I’m convinced that the only thing that will bring about necessary political transformation are social movements operating on local, regional, national, and international levels. The alliance with movement politics is also a way that experimental artists are transforming their models of practice, moving from individualist forms of creative originality made for elite consumer markets, and towards collectivist mobilizations, new media ecologies, and participatory creativity linked to and supporting larger socio-political forces.

—Alice Smits For the art word to become relevant in addressing these forms of art should it not restructure itself first before it can adequately address these issues?

—TJ Demos The art world has and is continually undergoing transformations, but there are vested interests and institutionalized formats that are resisting change at ever levels. But writers and teachers play a role in raising awareness of experimental formations and new ways of considering and expanding aesthetics and creativity, such as considering the events at Standing Rock and Fossil Free Culture, for instance, as emergent models of collective world-making practice that are the most exemplary forms of Anthropocene-era resistance struggles. With Against the Anthropocene, I am trying to work toward the transformation of what art can be, so its relevance to the most burning questions that matter today—the questions of how we can best transition beyond the end of the Holocene world—is clear.


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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2023