Anthropocene Project New stage of the earth’s history

The Anthropocene Project, Xavier Le Roy, John Law, “Techné” | Photo: Jakob Hoff, © Haus der Kulturen der Welt
The Anthropocene Project, Xavier Le Roy, John Law, “Techné” | Photo (detail): Jakob Hoff, © Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Mankind has inscribed itself in the history of the earth. This is the premise of the much-debated Anthropocene thesis. A two-year interdisciplinary project, in the House of World Cultures, extending until the end of 2014, is discussing the consequences of the thesis for art and the humanities.

Our ideas of nature are outdated. Nature can no longer be considered independently of human action. Man is driving on climate change and changing the earth’s substance. Consequently, we are living in a new stage of the earth’s history – the Anthropocene.

This thesis was set forth in 2000 in a scientific paper by the biologist Eugene Stoermer and the chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen. Since then, the term “Anthropocene” has had a meteoric career. The Anthropocene Working Group, which has formed around the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz and currently consists of 27 international scientists from various disciplines, is developing a proposal for an extension of the geological time scale, which it plans to have finished by 2017. The proposal considers where the mark should be set for the turning point of the most recent stage in the earth’s history, the Holocene. Some say with the advent of agriculture; others with the construction of the first Underground in London at the end of the nineteenth century.

Man against nature

Since January 2013, this scientific debate has been translated into public discourse in the House of World Cultures (Haus der Kulturen der Welt / HKW) in Berlin. A series of interdisciplinary events has been investigating the consequences of the Anthropocene thesis for art and the humanities as expressions of human creativity. In October 2014 the two-year Anthropocene Project enters its final phase. The project’s partners include Max Planck Society, the German Museum in Munich and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam.“We’re interested in the concept of the Anthropocene as a figure of thought”, emphasises HKW curator Katrin Klingan, Section Director for Literature, Society and Science. “The concept changes our ideas of nature and culture, subject and object.” It raises the basic question about the role of man: “Is he the all-embracing creator and does he possess the power to alter all natural processes? Or, on the contrary, is man’s position being deprived of its privileged status?”

Models of new research

For the start of the project, artists, scientists and thinkers from various disciplines were brought together so that they could each contribute his or her perspective on the challenges of the “Age of Man”. These encounters, which took place under the motto of Narratives and Discussions, consisted in exchanges of ideas and performances. They were divided into topics related to the discourse on the Anthropocene: for example, Times, Perspectives, Gardens and Techné – the last being an ancient Greek term for art and crafts, technique and technology. The choreographer and molecular biologist Xavier Le Roy developed a performance in which he appeared as a hybrid being – man, animal and robot: a comment on the unfinished evolutionary transformation of man.As part of the opening phase of the project, 20 heads of universities and research institutes were also invited to discuss, in Klingan’s words, “how on their view, alternative forms of knowledge production would have to be designed under the aspect of the Anthropocene”. From this they developed a project entitled the Anthropocene Curriculum. Since September 2013, 27 international scientists from various disciplines, designers, architects and artists have been developing seminar themes that are expected to be realized in November 2014. In demand is a new mental agility in the sciences.

The double view

On 16 October 2014 the event A Matter Theatre will ring in the final phase of the Anthropocene Project”. A roundtable, workshops, screenings and performances will explore the interplay of human intervention and political processes. As an example, Klingan mentions the economic exploitation chain of oil production. “It’s about the double view of earth processes and the problems that result from them.” “A Matter Theatre” will also be the occasion for a constituent meeting of the Anthropocene Working Group.Publication of the book Grain/Vapor/Ray will be part of drawing up the balance of the project. The book will contribute the perspective of intellectual history. It is a selection of 40 historical documents from several millennia – literary, geo-philosophical, scientific and scholarly. These were given to 40 contemporary authors who were invited to respond to them on the premise of the Anthropocene concept.

Geologic era of the future

The two-year project is characterized by an immense thematic span and variety of events. It ranges from the documentation project “The Anthropocene Observatory” to the discursive concert series Doofe Musik (i.e., Dumb Music) to the cross-media competition Future Storytelling. Klingan is convinced that the study of the Anthropocene will continue beyond the project. For instance, the participants in the Curriculum could further develop the themes at their respective institutions. “The Anthropocene remains an interesting figure of thought for processes that need reconsideration”, says the curator. “Whether it’s actually a new geologic era isn’t the point.”