Curating the Anthropocene




IMAGINE A FUTURE ARCHEOLOGIST on a dig in what was once downtown Los Angeles, excavating, exposing layers of history, like the paleontologists at the La Brea Tar Pits are doing today, finding bones of saber-toothed cats, mammoth, and dire wolves.

What does the archeologist of the future find?

Trashed sneakers, pieces of meat, broken prosthetics, disemboweled electronics, parts of robots and birds, collections of feathers, skeletons, lobsters, roots, tubers, bird nests, shark skin, spiders, beetles, mushrooms, papaya, bread, seashells, palm fronds, amphorae, layered columns, a bicycle wheel, pendants, a cross, seahorses, bones, blood, lianas, cod fish, a sickle, a broken egg, coral, amber, random erratic boulders, vertebrae, petrified wood, seed pods, a sandwich, a prosthetic hand holding bones.

Out of the fragments, our archeologist begins to piece together a story, a history, about our times.

This is one of the roles that The Theater of Disappearance, an exhibition by the Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas casts its audience in. The show, which is currently at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles, is one of the most thought-provoking, disturbing explorations of the Anthropocene yet, in any medium. It takes over the cavernous former police warehouse downtown. The interior is painted the deep dark underwater blue of a sky at late dusk. Distance is indeterminate. Spectators walk around with phone flashlights, forced into the role of discoverers, diggers, spelunking a past that looks like the future, or the present. Villar Rojas is exploring layers of history, setting up uncanny tableaus of our own frenetic time slowed down by sedimentation. The objects are under glass, embedded in concrete, or refrigerated, allowing our present to be contemplated as part of a much longer, even geological arc of history. We become archeologists of our own era.

 

Welcome to the Anthropocene.

This is also a role that the Anthropocene casts us in.

This term, the Anthropocene, was first proposed in an article published at the turn of the millennium by Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric scientist, and his colleague Eugene Stoermer, an ecologist. They argued that we no longer inhabit the Holocene, the period from the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago up to the present (indeed, Holocene actually means “entirely new or recent,” or, if you will, the present). Crutzen and Stoermer argued that the present as we had conceived it was actually over. It was, in fact, now the past. They claimed that human beings had so transformed Earth that our impact would not only be visible in geological strata in the future, but would mark a distinctive boundary in the history of the planet. This was a new epoch, which they called the Anthropocene, the human age. According to them, the Holocene had ended around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. Since then, the burning of fossil fuels, especially in the period of the “Great Acceleration” after World War II, along with exponential population growth, nitrogen production and deposition, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change have all left distinct traces around the world that will be readable in the geological strata by future geologists.

Even if you haven’t been immersed in it, you can probably imagine that there is no end to debate about the Anthropocene. Geologists are still in the formal processes of examining evidence for the claims behind the term. They have not settled on where to put the boundary. They have not even come to an official decision about whether to accept this new nomenclature. Some critics have proposed the “Homogenocene” as a better label for our epoch, because globalization is causing the planet to become more homogenous ecologically, economically, and even culturally. Others have proposed the “Capitalocene,” because capitalism is, after all, really responsible for the mess we’re in. And yet, the Anthropocene has already taken on a vibrant cultural life quite apart from the scientific debate among geologists. It has become a shorthand for not only human dominance of vast portions of Earth and its life-forms, but also for a fundamental shift in the relationship between people and nature.

Interestingly, this shorthand has come to mean two quite different things. For pessimists, the Anthropocene is a new version of what environmental historians call a declensionist narrative — an old story template about decline, end times, the fall from grace. Crutzen himself fits this mold as he catalogs the damage we have done to the planet. He writes:

During the past three centuries the human population has increased tenfold to more than 6 billion and is expected to reach 10 billion in this century. The methane-producing cattle population has risen to 1.4 billion. About 30-50% of the planet’s land surface is exploited by humans. Tropical rainforests disappear at a fast pace, releasing carbon dioxide and strongly increasing species extinction. Dam building and river diversion have become commonplace. More than half of all accessible fresh water is used by mankind. Fisheries remove more than 25% of the primary production in upwelling ocean regions and 35% in the temperate continental shelf. Energy use has grown 16-fold during the twentieth century, causing 160 million tonnes of atmospheric sulphur dioxide emissions per year, more than twice the sum of its natural emissions. More nitrogen fertilizer is applied in agriculture than is fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems; nitric oxide production by the burning of fossil fuel and biomass also overrides natural emissions. Fossil-fuel burning and agriculture have caused substantial increases in the concentrations of “greenhouse” gases — carbon dioxide by 30% and methane by more than 100% — reaching their highest levels over the past 400 millennia, with more to follow.

The New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tersely condensed this view when she tweeted in 2014: “2 words that probably should not be used in sequence: ‘good’ & ‘anthropocene.’”

On the other hand, the Anthropocene has engendered an equal and quite opposite reaction — an odd celebration of our awesome powers. Noted nature writer Diane Ackerman’s latest book The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us exemplifies this view. “Our relationship with nature has changed,” Ackerman writes, “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad. We’re at a great turning, our own momentous fork in the road, behind us eons of geological history, ahead a mist-laden future, and all around us the wonders and uncertainties of the Human Age.” This leads Ackerman to an exaltation of human power: “These days, startling though the thought is, we control our own legacy. We’re not passive, we’re not helpless. We’re earth-movers. We can become Earth-restorers and Earth-guardians. We still have time and imagination, and we have a great many choices […] [O]ur mistakes are legion, but our talent is immeasurable.”

In between the poles of the triumphalist techno-optimists, like Ackerman, and the prophets of doom, like Kolbert and Crutzen, there is plenty of room for middle ground, which is well represented by the science writer Emma Marris, who explored this more moderate view in her book The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Marris joined geographer Erle Ellis and biologists Joseph Mascaro and Peter Kareiva in rejecting the declensionist narrative while proposing a path forward in a thoroughly altered landscape: “The Anthropocene does not represent the failure of environmentalism,” they wrote.

It is the stage on which a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism can be built. This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. It is not ruined. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it.

 

Who’s the “We”?

In The Theater of Disappearance, Villar Rojas creates a stage for asking ourselves some big questions about these narrative templates and ideas. These questions, like the layered columns and refrigerated vitrines in his exhibition, might serve as guideposts or topoi as we think about the Anthropocene.

We should start with one of the most basic questions that the conversations and narratives around the Anthropocene raise. What do you mean “we,” white man?

The Anthropocene, in its most basic form, and in many of its specific formulations, posits “human beings” as a species and as the “we” who are responsible for this altered planet. But the one billion wealthiest inhabitants on Earth have contributed most to the problems cataloged by Crutzen and others and reaped the greatest benefits, too, while the bottom three billion have added very little to the burden, benefited hardly at all, and will suffer most from the consequences of the Anthropocene. Many of us have come to understand that what makes us different — nationality, race and ethnicity, gender, class, religion, culture, language, and other facets of our existence, identity, and experience — may be just as important to who “we” are as our biological species, and in some cases much more important.

This question also comes up in Villar Rojas’s show. Who’s the “we” in the “Theater of Disappearance”? Does the exhibition and the museum address itself to some particular public or publics? How does it assemble them around these objects over the run of the exhibition? Or more simply, in the room on any given day? We can also take another angle on that question: Who’s the observer in this strange exhibition? Is it someone in the future looking back on our times? Or is it us in the here and now? Or both? And how does that change the way we see the world both within and outside those walls? The pieces assembled in the show seem like artifacts of a lost world — a larger totality — but of course, the art-viewing public can be much more limited and specific than that. In a narrow sense, this is a vision of an art world lost in a new era it cannot fathom. In these ways, the critique here is both targeted and vast, forcing the viewer to rethink the relationship between the part and the whole: between art and the world.

The Theater of Disappearance also destabilizes our notion of who the protagonist is in the narrative posited by the show. The protagonist could be the artist himself, Adrián Villar Rojas and perhaps the 19 collaborators from Argentina, Brazil, and France who work closely with him. We could also consider the 58 MOCA staff listed in the catalog, or perhaps the wider circle of 61 more people further acknowledged, including many in Los Angeles who helped with materials for the installation, including Omar’s Exotic Birds, Soil & Sod Depot, Legacy Rock and Waterscapes, Milk Bakery, Farmers Market Poultry, and Valeria’s Chiles and Spices. Or is the protagonist much broader than that? Is it again the entire human species? At the same time, the exhibition challenges our inclination to always put ourselves at the center of the narrative. The objects in this show really hold center stage. Perhaps the protagonists of this story are, in fact, inanimate — the story of the world told through an assemblage of disparate objects and life-forms brought together in one exhibition.

 

Agency, Intention, and Assemblages

The show also raises questions around agency and intentionality. One of the tropes of the Anthropocene is best characterized by the futurist and technologist Stewart Brand’s famous quip: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Brand said that in 1968 around the founding of the Whole Earth Catalog. In light of the Anthropocene, he has modified that slogan to say more recently: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.”

But where do the optimists of the Anthropocene — and there are many like Brand — get their confidence? What makes them think that in the future, we’ll be able to manage the planet so much better than we have in the past? Doesn’t this kind of boldness border on hubris? It’s especially curious when you consider that some of the most fundamental human transformations of the planet were unintended consequences. No one planned for climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and toxification. No one intended these outcomes. They are all side effects of other activities. There’s no evidence that the best of intentions is good enough. So much is beyond our control, from the sunlight we depend on, to earthquakes that threaten our cities, to the swarms of crown-of-thorns starfish devouring the Great Barrier Reef — much of nature and its processes remain resolutely nonhuman.

The Theater of Disappearance isn’t afraid to engage with the nonhuman and that element of chance beyond our control. The objects in the show, in fact, appear to have been discarded, intentionally or unintentionally. But who left all this stuff here? What were they doing with it? What happened? How did these things come together in these layers and strange assemblages of the human and the nonhuman, the animate and the inanimate? In the catalog, Villar Rojas clarifies that many of these objects are actually leftovers from previous exhibitions of his, “recycled in a kind of second life at MOCA, completing a journey from ‘art’ to ‘prime matter’ and then art again.” One hundred and eleven volcanic rocks, chunks of marble, petrified trees, and hundreds of organic objects — including the remains of birds, fish, decomposing meat, jewelry, boots, and glass — were part of Rinascimento, an exhibition in Turin, Italy, in 2015, and were shipped to Los Angeles and incorporated into The Theater of Disappearance. Villar Rojas also shipped in stratified columns from Planetarium, an exhibition at the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, and silicone molds that were part of the Istanbul exhibition The Most Beautiful of All Mothers.

The collection, shipment, and arrangement of these things were all intentional, of course, but the artist doesn’t control the exhibition entirely. Some of the placement of objects is determined by chance operations and encounters during the design and installation. And as Villar Rojas told the Argentinian newspaper La Nación: “I don’t have nor do I pretend to have any control over the semiotic dimensions of the material that I liberate. Everything that happens is an effect of the total emancipation of these agents, including the actual material understood as an agent.” In his embrace of chance and of the agency of others, Villar Rojas implicitly acknowledges what Anthropocene optimists still deny — the elements of this story that are beyond our control.

 

Domestication and Housekeeping

The third big idea of the exhibition actually hides in plain sight. A viewer may be able to feel it or sense it, but it’s not visible. It’s outside the frame.

In a conversation printed in the catalog, Villar Rojas and Helen Molesworth, the curator of the exhibition, call this “housekeeping,” and it is central to the work of the artist, particularly in The Theater of Disappearance. In fact, it is in some ways the most important “disappearing” thing in the exhibition, whose disappearance or absence is meant to attract our attention. As the artist himself puts it: “If I had to choose one word for us to discuss together — a word that has implicitly traversed our dialogue during these past two years — it would be ‘housekeeping.’”

What does that word mean in this context? In part, it is the hidden work behind the making of the exhibition: “the cleaning, renewing, and reorganizing the space,” as the artist says, that made this spectacle possible. This includes the labor of converting a former police warehouse into a museum of contemporary art in the first place. The redesign was done by Frank Gehry, but then Villar Rojas and his team redesigned the redesign and built their site-specific installation within this new frame. “Housekeeping,” then, refers to all of that invisible labor which allows the show to exist. In the exhibition, this is slyly hinted at by a mysterious room hidden within the cavernous exhibition space. This small room looks like an empty backroom or backstage, but is clearly not at all functional — an empty Easter egg that seems to mock our looking for something behind the scenes. All signs of housekeeping have disappeared, though of course, the labor remains. Helen Molesworth makes the necessary resilience of this kind of work clear: “One of the things that I feel certain will survive in one hundred years,” she says, “is that somebody is still going to have to clean up.”

This attention to housekeeping has an interesting parallel to another significant idea at the center of the Anthropocene — domestication. As Peter Kareiva and others argued in the journal Science a decade ago, one important feature of the Anthropocene is that people have domesticated nearly the entire world. “Humans did not […] stop with simply domesticating a few chosen species,” they argued,

we have domesticated vast landscapes and entire ecosystems. […] Ours is a world of nature domesticated, albeit to varying degrees, from national parks to high-rise megalopolises. […] Under this paradigm, our challenge is to understand and thoughtfully manage the tradeoffs among ecosystem services that result from the inevitable domestication of nature.

So while we may not be gods, we are, at least, household gods in the Anthropocene, charged with caring for our thoroughly domesticated planet — if you think about our role charitably. Perhaps a more realistic framing would include cleaning up the mess we’ve made. But, as Molesworth notes in her conversation with Villar Rojas: “Housekeeping occupies no position of privilege in any narrative. Nobody wants to talk about cleaning up. No one wants to talk about the dust under the bed.”

 

“The Great Derangement”

The Theater of Disappearance raises one more question, which for us may be most troubling: whether we’re even capable of thinking about and telling stories about the Anthropocene.

The great novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh explores this question in depth in his recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh builds a provocative, important argument across three essays on stories, history, and politics that originated as three lectures. Ghosh argues that modern literature, and the novel in particular, has left us ill-equipped to think about the world we live in now. The novel, with its focus on individual protagonists and realistic plots and settings, cannot help us think about a world shaped not by individuals but by our collective actions and their unintended consequences. In this world, we have become as powerful as geological and atmospheric forces, and, yet, we are also, it seems, powerless in the face of global change. The “realistic” also seems to be shifting and growing increasingly weird, as ice caps melt, powerful hurricanes and typhoons rampage more frequently than ever, and floods, droughts, and fires plague the world.

 

Science Fiction Narratives

Science fiction, on the other hand, is a genre that has had no trouble encompassing grand scales of time and space, and incorporating unrealistic settings as well as the agency of the nonhuman. Science fiction also functions in ways that are interesting and useful for understanding the Anthropocene and The Theater of Disappearance.

As Fredric Jameson famously argued, the function of SF futures is to put readers in the position of seeing themselves and their own times — that is, the present — as the past of a future yet to come. “The most characteristic SF,” Jameson writes, “does not seriously attempt to imagine the ‘real’ future of our social system. Rather, its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” According to Jameson, our present is “unavailable to us for contemplation in its own right [because] the sheer quantitative immensity of objects and individual lives it comprises” makes our postmodern condition “so untotalizable and hence unimaginable.” Our present is also “occluded by the density of our private fantasies” and “the proliferating stereotypes of a media culture that penetrates every remote zone of our existence.” But when we return from a visit to the imaginary futures of science fiction, our present is offered to us in a new form, “the form of [that] future world’s remote past, as if posthumous and as though collectively remembered.” Science fiction thus provides, enables, and, indeed, enacts for the reader “a structurally unique ‘method’ for apprehending the present as history.” This method is especially powerful with dystopias and apocalyptic narratives that can encourage us to think about what we could do in the present to try to ensure that a dystopian future does not become reality. A visitor may feel some of that in The Theater of Disappearance.

There is, however, another, slightly different method at work in some science fiction, which is also at work in the exhibition. In SF that is not set in some distant future or on some distant planet, we encounter near-future scenarios in a world that is nearly identical to our own and yet changed in fundamental and momentous ways. These changes may not be readily identifiable, only sensed through a feeling or a hunch. The world in this science fiction is barely distinguishable from ours, it just feels uncannily different. In this version of science fiction, our world is presented as if it were science fiction. This feeling is best captured by William Gibson’s oft-quoted quip: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

While the first science fiction form allows us to inhabit the past of an imagined future, the second puts us in a future that is already materializing, already making our present obsolete.

The Theater of Disappearance works both of these angles. This is the future we already inhabit. It is also the past that a future observer could look back on to try to understand what on Earth we were doing here.

 

In Closing, an Opening

In her conversation with Villar Rojas, Molesworth says:

Your work suggests that it is possible that the museum as an institution might not survive the twenty-first century, but the whole kit and caboodle — civilization, humanity, the Earth — are also on the wane. This puts me in a vexed position. It means I don’t know how to be your curator.

The Theater of Disappearance opens up important questions about our time here on Earth and, as Molesworth suggests, the show also opens up questions about the role of the artist, the curator, and the museum, as well as audiences and public conversations in the Anthropocene.

In response, Villar Rojas makes a provocative observation, reflecting back on Greece, where he was in residence in 2016. He notes how central ancient Greece has been to a certain idea of Western civilization, and how that idea was constructed and designed at the same time as archeology developed in the area. So “who is the designer?” he asks. “Obviously, the digger.” And who is the digger? Villar Rojas goes on:

The American, British, French and German schools, whose respective national states were designing their own democratic, rationalist, and even supremacist “roots” — the legacy inherited straight from the ancient Greeks — during the last part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One single fact is enough to illustrate this idea: the largest and most ambitious archaeological venture in Athens — excavating a large portion of the city to discover the Stoa of the Athenians — was funded by Rockefeller. At the same time, all these excavations erased the “undesirable” Ottoman past. The excavations were intended to recover — to design — this white, Western culture. And yet the Persian and Ottoman cultures crossed all over Greece and are so deep inside its history. This kind of deletion happens all the time, all over the world.

The Theater of Disappearance is an example of a different kind of archeology, a different kind of presentation of history, and a different kind of museum exhibition. It also points to intriguing new possibilities for the future. Instead of a Wunderkammer that is part of a colonialist enterprise, cataloging the wonders of an expanding empire, The Theater of Disappearance works to decolonize our past, present, and future. The Theater of Disappearance turns the museum into a global representation of our cosmopolitan species and our messy multispecies assemblages. In another move that defines the Anthropocene, history and natural history can no longer be separated.

“I do believe there’s a much more committed way of relating to and constructing our past than to just clean, reshape, and tell a partial story,” Villar Rojas says in his conversation with Molesworth. He goes on:

We don’t have this distinction in the Spanish language between history and story. It’s very interesting to think that in Spanish it’s historia. Historia is storytelling and history. I always find it quite meaningful and confusing when I’m speaking in English. Is this history or story? Even on a personal level, do we say “our history together” or “our story together”?

So who are the diggers and designers of the Anthropocene in The Theater of Disappearance? Who are the housekeepers? With our tickets in our pockets, having arrived here from somewhere else, having sorted the recycling and put out the trash, left our beds made or unmade, we’re not looking in from the outside. We’re imbricated and implicated in The Theater of Disappearance.

Can we take these questions about the Anthropocene, provoked by the show, beyond the four walls of an exhibition or out from between the covers of the catalog? Can we, finally, with this perspective, inflect the history in which we are embedded?

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Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

Ursula K. Heise is the Marcia H. Howard Chair in Literary Studies at the UCLA English Department and the author, most recently, of Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species.

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Feature Image: Installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance, October 22, 2017–May 13, 2018 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, image courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Mexico City and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris / London, photo by Studio Michel Zabé

Banner Image: Installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance, October 22, 2017–May 13, 2018 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, image courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Mexico City and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris / London, photo by Studio Michel Zabé


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