Geologists have proposed that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Distinct from the Holocene, which started 11,650 years ago at the end of the last ice age, the term “Anthropocene” suggests that human beings have made an indelible mark on the Earth—that our species has become a predominant planetary force. What do we do with such an awareness of how nature and culture have become so inextricably and precariously entwined, emotionally, politically, or aesthetically?
These are some of the questions we have been asking in our course, “Anthropocene: The Future Is Now,” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A unique hybrid class combining studio art and the natural sciences, it is modeled on a Berlin-based project called “The Anthropocene Curriculum,” in which we both have been active since 2014. Organized by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the project’s goal has been to create an open, globally relevant set of educational resources that are explicitly transdisciplinary in scope and planetary in scale.
Implicit in this transdisciplinary approach is collaboration. The conundrums and contradictions that characterize the Anthropocene cannot be addressed by any one discipline alone. Invasive species in a world dominated by domesticated ones, increasing socio-economic inequality paralleling rising standards of living, our unabated reliance on fossil fuels in the face of global warming—all of these and more are collective issues that demand a collective perspective.
For this reason, we encouraged our students, as featured artists in this issue of Minding Nature, to work together as members of three collaborative groups rather than as individuals, modeling a critical and aesthetic approach that is as plural and complex as it is necessary. In determining their own themes and how best to explore them, all three student collaboratives ultimately undertook projects with a direct focus on Chicago. In terms of engaged environmental inquiry, this makes a lot of sense: although the Anthropocene proposal encompasses the whole Earth, its overarching global “what” cannot be understood without examining the many and varied local “hows,” “whys,” and “whos.” Chicago is a city that is paradigmatic of how economic aspiration manifests itself as complex socio-ecological impacts—from the stockyards to the lead-contaminated backyards, from zebra mussels to the Board of Trade’s financial muscle, Chicago continues to be a metabolic nexus for what we refer to as “the natural-cultural,” or, as William Cronon as aptly called it, “Nature’s Metropolis.”
The three student groups’ themes create a richly woven web of histories and spaces across the city. The project called A New Nature brings urban industrial landscapes around Chicagoland into view, taking in the intimacy of the ground level, as well as the detailed and seemingly objective bird’s eye view from above. In documenting these sites along the Calumet Industrial Corridor, the human figure is notably absent, despite our overwhelming role in transforming the institutional, behavioral, and ecosystemic organization of the Corridor. These landscapes become somewhat ghostly, suggesting a sense of time passed, leaving ruins—a sense of a world recently abandoned by, or perhaps evacuated of, human presence. Of course, the pervasive pollution of such areas means that at present, they are sparsely populated. However, in the future they may be destined to remain so. On a planet that must restructure and repurpose its industrial infrastructures and also embrace an economic path of substantial de-growth in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming, these images of the present also feel like eerie foreshadows of a possible future.
Indeed, in many ways that future is already here. In the project titled New Ecological Practices of Making Space, a four-person collaboration imagines themselves as an activist group called W.E. (Willing Effort). Examining the increasingly altered ecology of the Great Lakes, this project invites us to reconsider our cultural assumptions and relations to non-native species like the Asian Carp; to transgenic organisms; and to everyday creatures that we could cultivate greater kinship with and care for. By suggesting new mythologies and new visual imagery, they propose a new kind of “ecology of place”—one less intent on biological conservation and more inclined toward cultural adaptation to our already rapidly transforming Great Lakes biome. They challenge us to rethink our notions of nature just as radically as we’ve changed nature itself. Making sense of the Anthropocene means not just understanding it, but making willful effort to reimagine our place in an irreversibly altered world.
The final project, Diachronous Markers, Violent Surfaces, poetically and critically examines Chicago’s troubled and ongoing history of “managerialism” and the rational logics through which industrialization takes shape. This collaboration points to the ways in which the alchemy of turning nature’s raw materials into culture’s commodities has been made possible by the creation of systems in which social oppression and environmental injustice are built in. By juxtaposing events across the city’s deep history, the project draws conceptual parallels and economic connections among the meat industry, mass incarceration, environmental racism, and land development to shine a critical light on the realities of our present moment. In interweaving carefully researched history with prose poetry and exposition, the markers and surfaces of the Anthropocene come into greater emotional and political focus, unearthing things that business-as-usual would rather keep buried.
All together, these projects represent the result of an experimental mode of education and collaboration that wrestles with some of the most important issues of our time. Instead of ruminating on what has already occurred, all these ideas challenge us to consider altered modes of observation, heightened self-awareness, and new modes of adaptation and participation. They serve as aesthetic attempts to make sense of our complex Anthropocene entanglements, bringing them from the everyday periphery to the center of our (very needed) attention.