Pictures for the Anthropocene Era

The Anthropocene Epoch, acknowledged to have begun in August 2016, is proof that the current situation of Earth and its environment is the result of human actions and behaviors, most of which took place in the past (the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear arms race, the ubiquitous use of plastic). “What makes the Anthropocene a clearly detectable landmark well beyond the boundary of stratigraphy, is the fact that it is the most relevant philosophical, religious, anthropological and [...] political concept for sidestepping the notions of ‘Modern’ and ‘modernities’”, Bruno Latour writes.1 Past, present, and future coexist in the DNA of the Anthropocene and, by extension, in that of its imagery. How has this era been depicted so far? How does so-called ‘Anthropocene photography’ – a term coined for the first time in 2015 within a blog written by a photographer, Kristin Wilson2, designating pictures of landscapes with unhuman scale, a global, industrial and machinic planet dominated by humans by Edward Burtynsky or Mishka Henner as anthropocenic - differ from other genres like Environmental Photography or Nature Photography?

The Anthropocene has to adopt an image. This raw matter in fact remains elusive, because the specialists have not yet decided if it began 50,000 years ago with the first hunters, 5,000 years ago with the domestication and cultivation of rice in Asia, in 1784 with Watt’s invention of the steam engine (marking the advent of the age of coal and fossil fuels), or the 16th of July 1950, with the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb, unless it was in the 1950s with the plastic essence of the “Great Acceleration”, both consumerist and productivist, the so-calles ‘Plasticocene’. Defining its representation a posteriori is just as novel; from an investigation at the heart of images of the past to the quest for its trace to the invention of a hitherto thoroughly unknown aesthetics, everything is possible.

And if the Anthropocene is also exciting, this is because it upsets our whole plan to protect nature, whose development was understood, up until now, as being separate from our sphere, with a nature requiring protection fueling philosophical and ethical debate about the recognition of these intrinsic qualities. “No postmodern philosopher, no anthropologist, no liberal theologian and no political thinker would have dared to situate the influence of human beings on the same scale as rivers, floods, erosion and biochemistry. What “social constructivism”, determined to show that scientific facts, social relations and inequalities between the sexes are “merely” historical episodes manufactured by people, would have dared to say that the same thing can also be said about the chemical composition of the atmosphere?”3

What is being played out with the Anthropocene is a change of thinking. Thinking about “us”, from now on man’s relation to nature, no longer has to do with the speculation of a small group of environmentalists. Thinking about the future is becoming intrinsic to the definition of our geological past. The time lines are forever overlapping. And in a discourse on climate change which demands that citizens and states alike start thinking now about a state of the earth which will only be realized in fifty years, while conceptualizing the beginning of a geological era, the challenge is nothing if not pregnant.

The originality of this geological era is that it is shaping the future. Geologists usually define eras well after they are over. The Anthropocene is happening now, and it is determining the future. This is terrain which makes it possible to imagine a geography, landscapes, a climate, and diseases—in a nutshell a whole speculative arsenal which is the selfsame one which seems to be missing in artists, when ecology and environment are involved.

Some academics like Irmgard Emmelhainz underscore the fact that the Anthropocene has no imagery, and no candid representation. “The image of the Anthropocene is still to come. The Anthropocene is the “Age of Man” that announces its own extinction. In other words, the Anthropocene thesis posits the human as the end of its own destiny. […] In short, images of the Anthropocene are missing; thus, it is first necessary to transcend our incapacity to imagine an alternative or something better by drawing a distinction between image and imagery, or pictures.”4

In her article “Enter the Anthropocene: Age of Man,” published in National Geographic in March 20115, Elizabeth Kolbert illustrated her introduction to the Anthropocene with thirteen photographs, most of them showing the earth’s exploitation and occupancy. Among these were a large number of aerial photographs, one featuring Dubai in the 1970s (Jens Neumann and Edgar Rodtman); others showed, for instance, agricultural greenhouses in southern Spain and oil fields (Edward Burtynsky) and the urban sprawl of Mexico City (Pablo López Luz); still others were shot from a high angle (Massimo Vitali and Mitch Epstein). “Nothing is occurring at local or human scales anymore it seems, it is all industrial, machinic, and planetary” write Kristen Wilson6, the author behind the term ‘Anthropocene Photography’. These images portray the effects of an economy and a way of life by focusing on structures from an aerial point of view, a perspective favored by most of the icons and main proponents of “environmental” photography. Those pictures show a failure of the technological sublime, this concept theorized by David Nye,7 a sort of slow catastrophe rather than the usual apocalyptic and spectacular version. This could be an accurate portrait of the Anthropocene Era, showing the earth overexploited by industries, saturated by an overgrown population. From my point of view, I don’t think this imagery renew anything, it inscribes itself in the perspective of the Environmental Photography’s History, meaning here picturing landscape with the standards of sublime’s aesthetics.

Regarding this article and the imagery found on internet, it turns out that the Anthropocene would already caught in the trap of an imagery and a school of photography devoted to spectacularization of the clear conscience – a trap constituted by the worst of all possible viewpoints, the aerial, and this at a time when we need to return to Earth, as philosopher Émilie Hache so aptly put it. “The physical and intellectual experience that we are looking for in this alternative image of a ‘return to Earth’ must therefore be constructed in its entirety, from the ground up: what do we mean by thinking/acting/knowing/imagining or by living on Earth. The return to an earth that we do not know very well, but whose new ecology we have to learn. Perhaps we no longer have any good metaphors or stories that we can use for this purpose, or good concepts to accompany these new ramifications,” she wrote, pointing to “the need for a new aesthetics, in the sense of a renewal of our modes of perception, of our sensitivity, so that we can respond to what is happening to us.”8

However, by using aerial photographs, or photographs taken from a great height, press articles dealing with the Anthropocene distance themselves from this renewal. Ecological discourse has been a prisoner of the image of Earth seen from space since ecological concerns first attracted media attention. From the late 1960s, when the first satellite images were published, to the famous The Blue Marble (the first photograph of Earth taken by an astronaut), spatial images of Earth became an icon of the environmental movement and its preoccupation with protecting Earth’s fragile planisphere. Earth has drawn away from its main inhabitants, become cut off from them. This is assuredly a risk associated with aerial photographs of environmental dysfunctions: the physical distance constructed by the remote point of view leads to both de-realization and detachment from responsibility. Earth is far away, the problem lies beyond our grasp. We can do nothing about it.

Such is the conclusion that often accompanies this type of “inhuman” and overly technical imagery. By perfectly dissecting the pertinence of images for the public and their effect as emotional “levers” and spurs to action, researcher Sebastian Vincent Grevsmühl, in his study “On the Use of Imagery for Climate Change Engagement,” clearly shows that aerial views are not particularly helpful.9 Grevsmühl also calls for a return to Earth, after exposing the ideology of security that lies behind the aerial vision: “It is time to recognize that only by planting our feet squarely back on Earth, by giving a voice to those who do not have the power to roam the skies, and by bringing together viewpoints representative of the greatest possible social and cultural diversity can the ideas, knowledge, and plans required for such a future emerge.”10

Can Anthropocene Photography be something else than rebranding of Environmental Photography? Regarding the specificity of the Anthropocene Era, intermingling past, present, and future conditions, we can’t be fulfilling with the same vision as before. Anthropocene’s photography shouldn’t be linked automatically to ecology or nature. It has to be visually affranchised from environmental duty to start a new vision, a true Anthropocene vision.

A monstrous case

The anthropocenic image will, however, have greater latitude owing to its hypertrophied object-subject-medium, a hyperobject11 par excellence that disposes with frames and goes beyond the purely visual, that makes use of both the imagination and pure data, of observation and speculation, with a revalorized observer at the centre, one who goes from being a witness to a member of an anthropocenic society.

I found these qualities in Katja Novitskova’s work that echoes perfectly with the hybridity of the Anthropocene, its overwhelming condition and futuristic power. It also echoes to Bruno Latour’s call to “Love you monsters”, the title of a text about Frankenstein12 that inspired Ted Nordhaus et Michael Shellenberger for their own book, Love you Monsters, Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene13. Calling for a new vision of environmentalism, and envisioning technical progress (even with its monsters) as a positive way to avoid apocalyptic imagery of nature’s destruction, and enjoying artificiality, underpin the several articles gathered in the book.

Katja Novitskova compiles pictures of “wild” animals gathered among thousands of pictures available on internet, with data visualization, signs and symbols, to create some strange, sometimes monstrous, installations. “Today any image can serve as an informational diagram of something else, a triggering pattern, a dataset to be mined. The storm of data is brewing”, says Novitskova according to Greene Naftali Gallery’s website in 2016. Appropriated pictures, after being considerably enlarged, cropped out of their original photographic background, become freestanding sculptures, the first hybridization that fosters this “visual” approach. A hybrid photo-sculpture, neither pure photography, nor perfect sculpture, hesitating between publicity displays and remnants of a film set. A monster as Latour understand the “Frankensteinish” condition of our world. And once again, context and interpretation are the key. Shuffling those pictures and statistic signs without any context, any origin explained, Novitskova set up a world with its own scale and measure. As post-internet grown artist and citizen of the Anthropocene, Novitskova pictures scientific data signs and statistic symbols (the most common way to visualize Anthropocene), specific and eclectic knowledge compiled to build-up a Wunderkammer and the aesthetic standard of the Anthropocene with hybridity. To me, chamber of wonder and hybridity are the key-concepts of the Anthropocene era, an amateur collection crossed with a scientific creation between two organisms drastically different.

Levels of deep and shallow knowledge until superficiality, objects gathered because of their visual similarities, strangeness, constitute the tools to enter Novitskova’s world and the realm of its Anthropocene. “Web today is a space of content overloads and too much information. My instinct tells me that rather than making things even more complicated, juxtaposed and hard to take in, it makes more sense to isolate elements from the mess and expand them in a relatively empty space of a white cube or a book-spread.”14 Pictures are flat, not pretending being something else than a print, enlarged, cut abruptly, some collages in the space that appears like pop ups. “No longer mere representations of nature, penguins and giraffes become representations of the image coming to life” analyzes Frieze’s art critic Sara Stern.15 Nothing is didactic in her work, there is no discourse, no explanation accompanying the enlarged pictures of wild animals, bacteria, micro-organisms, intermingled to set up an instable vision, highly artificial, of our earth, our world. However, the sense of loss, disappearance is strong, elusive but powerful. “Each title refers to concepts from the work of neo-materialist philosopher Manuel De Landa, whose non-anthropocentric view of history focuses on the self-organizing, generative processes that govern systems” explains Stern.16 And size matters here, an unhuman size, that shapes the experience of those pictures, it would be completely different, hung on a wall, at a regular picture’ size. Here they reject the viewer, dominates him without being gigantic. Something strangely familiar but without any control on it, only the feeling that we are linked to this monstrous condition. The panels make us enter the era of the Anthropocene, something bigger and odd, playing with some dichotomies: nature/culture, primitive/post-human, antediluvian/futuristic, abstract/realistic, brut/technological, natural/artificial. Kirsty Bell used the formula “ecological continuum”17 to explain the merge of these opposites as a new reality of the Era of the Anthropocene.

The narration depends here on the capacity of the spectator to interpret, to extrapolate from these seducing pictures gathered in this strange world, superimposed on ours. As Venus Lau wrote in Leap, a Chinese magazine, “Novitskova’s work does not discuss nature, but rather how nature is interpreted and how the development of the visual is affected by nature; she outlines the phylogenetics of the human-nature visual interactions. Nature and humanity together form a vast network of consciousness in which they meet at a point of otherness and translate but never assimilate”.18

In some recent sculptures displayed at Lower Manhattan’s City Hall Park, Novitskova references animals that have been studied for biotechnology research. “The primitive round worm, for example, is the first species whose neurology has been digitized for research purposes; scientists have studied the squid for its emotional and mental capabilities; lizard legs have been a source of inspiration for numerous engineering projects.”19 The freestanding cutouts hesitate between speculation, science-fiction patterns and designs, cheap advertising methods and a low-tech collage style. “There seems to be a lack of ecological self-awareness in relation to the internet and technology. 
So, here’s what we have – the internet is fueled by the attention of billions of people and by fossil minerals. It is very visual and social. Human attention is a material thing, a scarce resource for which everyone is competing; it drives industries. Attention is an evolutionary mechanism; images are material carriers of attention-grabbing intensities that are evolving in our culture. And the human preference for attention-grabbing and social-status-signaling patterns is leaving actual geological and environmental footprints on the planet at the expense of other species” tells Novitskova to Gene McHugh in 2014.20 To me, she opens a path toward an ‘Anthropocene Photography’, subtly ecological, mingling culture, science and politics with a deep sense of aesthetics. Public is not treated as a simple witness, but clearly commits to the construction of the picture with its interpretation. “Animal forms, especially ones with eyes and facial expressions, display visual patterns that activate certain primal reactions in the viewer, charge them emotionally, whether they know it’s an artwork or not. For me the work is not just the sculpture but the smiles and stares, the nearly automatic smart-phone snapping, the archaic ‘posing with a trophy’ photo-op behavior that often coincides with the work being exhibited. The sculpture triggers all these behavior patterns” explains Novitskova.21 “Computational tools and what is called big data are revealing nonlinear regularities in the chaos that is human evolutionary genetics, human history, contemporary demographics, art and fashion trends, etc. this doesn’t mean a loss of subjectivity. Almost the opposite is true – intuition is an advanced form of pattern processing, and I myself usually fully trust it.”22

Conclusion

Following these two examples, it appears that the association of the Anthropocene Era, landscape photography, and the aesthetics of the sublime is not necessarily a good match. Such point of convergence produced until now the same images as those of the past decades dedicated to aware the public about climate change and several ecological failures. It has linked the Anthropocene to a visual logic of catastrophe and decay, a beautification of catastrophic situation, a moral vision of a civilization on the road to ruin. Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal next project about the Anthropocene (https://theanthropocene.org/#chapter-0) will follow this lead. But there is something significant in this ‘new’ project, the desire to build up a multidisciplinary project with the production of a book, an exhibition and a film. The information about the project are still sparse, but it is said that it would an epic film following the Anthropocene Working Group, using “high-end production values and cutting-edge camera technologies”. Burtynsky contributes the hyper technological vision of the Anthropocene, super scientific, obsessed with technicity and strongly believing in the power of scientist.

On the other way, artists like Katja Novitskova conceptualize another version of the Anthropocene visuality, based on a common perception and not on the realm of the spectatorship. This collective construction could rely on the cubist aesthetics. I will develop here an intuition of Irmgard Emmelhainz about some cubist origins for the Anthropocene’s perception. “Cubism, in contrast, turned space, time, and the subject upside down, redefining spatial experience and rupturing the picture plane. If classical representation conveys a continuous space, cubism invented discontinuous space by subverting the relations between subject and object, making identity and difference relative, and necessarily questioning classical metaphysics. The cubist image renewed the image of the world by dissociating gaze, subject, and space, but without estranging them from each other; this brought about a new, anti-humanist subject position. Moreover, with cubism, both duration and a perspectival multiplicity became embedded in the picture plane”23 wrote Emmelhainz.

The abandonment of the monocentric perspective for an eccentric and polycentric viewpoint fully capable of formalizing and accounting for the Anthropocene, is way more convincing than applying the specificities of the sublime. As the Anthropocene implies not only “rocks” but, more fundamentally, history, chemistry, geopolitics, climatology, and other disciplines, the pattern of Cubism, builds up a rational vision, freed from the taste for dramatic situations. Irmgard Emmelhainz has suggested that the Cubist vision is an aesthetic precedent that speaks to the Anthropocene, an enticing way forward in that it perfectly grasps the principle of simultaneity and the shattering of reference points in its search for truth in images.24 The most important quality here is the distance taken by the cubist eye the reactive perception, nothing more impressionist or heart-braking here. No more passion, but reason. A cold blood and condensed perception and interpretation that relies on the expertise of multiple sources, as it composes an exploded vision. No model to represent or copy, the reality here is completely taking shape from the memory, the collection. It’s never spontaneous, totally exploded. As the Anthropocene exceeds our perception of time and space, its picture is plural, decomposed, freed from the anthropocentric gaze, but totally dependent from its interpretation. I suggest starting to consider Cubism as fundamental roots of the Anthropocene Photography. It doesn’t exclude the one erected on the ruins of the sublime paradigm, but I guess the Cubist perception could be a more creative path to envision the future of the Anthropocene.

  1. Bruno Latour, “L’Anthropocène et la destruction de l’image du globe”, in Emilie Hache (ed.), De l’univers clos au monde infini, (Bellevaux: Editions Dehors, 2014), 32.
  2. Kristin Wilson, accessed July 27, 2016, http://kristinwilson.com/work/anthropocene-photography/
  3. Latour, op.cit., 33.
  4. Irmgard Emmelhainz, “Images do not Show: the Desire to See in the Anthropocene”, in Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (eds.), Art in the Anthropocene, Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 138.
  5. Elizabeth Kolbert, “Enter the Anthropocene Age of Man”, National Geographic, 219, no 3, (March 2011): 60-85.
  6. Kristin Wilson, accessed July 27, 2016, http://kristinwilson.com/work/anthropocene-photography/
  7. David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime, (Cambridge (Mass), London: MIT Press, 1994)
  8. Émilie Hache, “Retour sur Terre,” [Introduction], in Émilie Hache (ed.), De l’univers clos au monde fini (Paris: Éditions Dehors, 2014), 12 (our translation).
  9. Saffron J. O’Neil, Maxwell Boykoff, Simon Niemeyer, and Sophie A. Day, “On the Use of Imagery for Climate Change Engagement,” Global Environmental Change, no. 23 (2013): 413–21.
  10. Sebastian Vincent Grevsmühl, La Terre vue d’en haut: L’invention de l’environnement global (Paris: Seuil, 2014), 330 (our translation).
  11. The concept comes from Timothy Morton. See his Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
  12. Accessed July 27, 2016, https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/love-your-monsters
  13. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Love you Monsters, Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, (Breakthrough Institute, 2011)
  14. Katja Novitskova, in Martijn Hendriks & Katja Novitskova, “Post-Internet Materialism”, Metropolism, 2014, no 2, accessed August 15, 2017, http://metropolism.com/features/post-internet-materialism/
  15. Sara Stern, “Katja Novitskova”, Frieze, no 8, (February-March 2013): 133-134.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Kirsty Bell, “Katja Novitskova”, Frieze, no 166, (October 2014), accessed August 15, 2017, https://frieze.com/article/focus-katja-novitskova
  18. Venus Lau, “Katja Novitskova: Plastiglomerates of Images”, Leap, no 33, (July 2015), accessed August 15, 2017, http://www.leapleapleap.com/2015/07/katja-novitskova-plastiglomerates-of-images/
  19. Henri Neuendorf, “Public Art Fund Brings Katja Novitskova’s Sci-Fi Sculptures to City Hall Park”, Artnet, (March 9, 2017), accessed August 20, 2017, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/public-art-fund-katja-novitskova-886628
  20. “Post Internet, Katja Novitskova, in conversation with Gene McHugh”, Garage Magazine, no 7, (2014): 208-209.
  21. Ibid., 208.
  22. Ibid., 208.
  23. Irmgard Emmelhainz, “Images Do Not Show: 
The Desire to See in the Anthropocene”, in Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (eds.), Art in the Anthropocene, Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 132.
  24. Irmgard Emmelhainz, “Conditions of Visuality Under the Anthropocene and Images of the Anthropocene to Come,” e-flux journal, no. 63 (March 2015): 2, accessed November 9, 2016, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/63/60882/conditions-of-visuality-under-the-anthropocene-and-images-of-the-anthropocene-to-come/.