Ethics, Ecology, and the Future: Art and Design Face the Anthropocene
Ethics, Ecology, and the Future: Art and Design Face the Anthropocene
Art and design have become platforms for discussing the long-term implications of technology and modernity, most recently in relation to ecological crisis and the Anthropocene. While artists, designers and curators seek to raise awareness of the Anthropocene, it is important to remain critical of the narratives these practitioners develop. This paper provides a brief critique of?how these issues are being addressed in the cultural sphere, suggesting that works of critical, conceptual and speculative design may be best suited to addressing the Anthropocene as they foster critical thinking about how we relate to technology and science, how we organize ourselves politically and socially, and how we define ourselves in the broader ecological assemblage. Artists and designers discussed include Marina Zurkow, Una Chaudhuri, Oliver Kellhammer, Fritz Ertl and Sarah Rothberg; Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby; and Jae Rhim Lee.
Art and design have become platforms for discussing the long-term implications of technology and modernity, most recently in relation to ecological crisis and the Anthropocene. Art, design and critical philosophy have joined forces to address these issues, resulting in a cross-discipline shift towards posthuman, anthrodecentric, object-oriented and vital-materialist thinking. While artists, designers and curators seek to raise awareness of the Anthropocene, it is important to remain critical of the narratives these practitioners develop. This paper provides a brief critique of how these issues are being addressed in the cultural sphere, suggesting that works of critical, conceptual and speculative design may be best suited to addressing the Anthropocene, as they foster critical thinking about how we relate to technology and science, how we organize ourselves politically and socially, and how we define ourselves in the broader ecological assemblage. To test this hypothesis, I will discuss Dear Climate by Marina Zurkow, Una Chaudhuri, Oliver Kellhammer, Fritz Ertl and Sarah Rothberg; United Micro Kingdoms, Foragers, and Is This Your Future? by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby; and Infinity Burial Project by Jae Rhim Lee. Whether they choose to call themselves artists or designers, the makers I discuss use cultural contexts to involve the public in dark discussions and radical thought experiments. They revive the practice of critical thinking, not to prescribe concrete single-track solutions, but to broaden perspectives on how the world is and how it could be in light of the Anthropocene.
What is the Anthropocene?
For the most part the initiatives I will discuss are formed in response to the Anthropocene thesis, which states that humans have entered a new geological epoch defined by the visible and lasting effects of human activity on all aspects of the environment. Following Dutch chemist and Nobel prize-winner Paul Crutzen’s use of the term in 2000, the word Anthropocene (Anthropos = human, cene = new) has been adopted by many inside and outside the field . Infusing the name of the epoch with that of the human should not be mistaken as a signification of human dominance over the geological environment; we can recognize humans as a geological force even if humans are not in control of the force they exude. Because the naming of the Anthropocene is so grounded in calling out the cause of our ecological crisis, several alternatives have been proposed in critical philosophy, including the “Capitalocene” and the “Colonialocene,” both of which seek to point more directly towards the avenues of human activity that have caused the most ecological damage. Although the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has not yet accepted the Anthropocene thesis—no decision will be made until a summit in 2016—many believe that the Anthropocene message is crucial to address in the cultural sphere. Head of Australia National University's Climate Change Institute Will Steffen says that the name change acts as a “strong reminder to the general public that we are now having undeniable impacts on the environment at the scale of the planet as a whole” . In agreement with Steffen, many artists and curators are using art as a platform for promoting this kind of awareness.
However, as artists and curators promote awareness of the Anthropocene, they also develop narratives about the Anthropocene, and what humans should do in response. These narratives are incredibly important in how we recognize, address and respond to the Anthropocene. Unfortunately, even the most well-intentioned art projects can produce destructive narratives about the Anthropocene in the public sphere. Anthropocene narratives coming from the art world seem to be most potentially destructive when they propose to do something, further reinforcing an attitude of human dominance over the planet. Paradoxically, art initiatives that stimulate critical thinking rather than simulate action have the potential to be most constructive.
In his book The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton states, “one of the things that modern society has damaged, along with ecosystems and species and the global climate, is thinking” . Responding to Morton in her book Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, Joanna Zylinska calls the Anthropocene a “crisis of critical thinking,” suggesting that “thinking is the most political thing we can do with regard to the Anthropocene, before we go and do anything else” . Because critical making is a type of doing to facilitate thinking, works of critical, conceptual and speculative design may be best suited to addressing the Anthropocene. Furthermore, because the Anthropocene as a geological epoch may eventually be rejected by the ICS, we might consider how the Anthropocene can be useful as an “ethical pointer” and an imperative for critical thinking . To do so, art and design that seeks to address the Anthropocene must go beyond geological aesthetics and the “rhetoric of decline” to do the work of philosophy. In reference to her writing on bio art and ethics, Zylinska suggests we approach the Anthropocene through “a different mode of philosophizing, one that produces ideas with things and events rather than just with words” . By doing philosophy as such, art that addresses the Anthropocene can make use of critical and “non-instrumental modes of thinking” to avoid the “easy solutionism and what some theorists have called derangement of scale” that plagues Anthropocene discourse, especially within the techno-corporate sphere . By focusing on propositions rather than solutions, artists and designers can challenge heroic, solutionist and masculinist narratives of the Anthropocene, instead provoking dark discussions and radical thought experiments.
Art + the Anthropocene: A Report
The Anthropocene thesis has led to several crossover projects joining the arts, humanities, natural sciences and technology—becoming “something of a curatorial meme” for better or for worse . While these initiatives have received little critique, some art and curatorial projects may do more harm to Anthropocene discourse than good. Two such projects are the Serpentine Gallery’s Today We Reboot the Planet (2013), which offered a monumental and “fantastical comment on the fragility of the world’s ecology,” and The Hague’s Yes Naturally: How Art Saves the World (2013), which boldly claimed “solutions to environmental problems can be found if we are prepared to change our habits: through recycling and new kinds of cooperation we can save the planet” . In these instances, it’s not the artworks themselves, but rather the exhibition-as- framing-device that triggers a red flag. While optimism may be lacking in some references to the Anthropocene—more often spun as an immanent catastrophe or apocalypse—such superficial statements mistake the Anthropocene for a false signifier that humans are in control of the planet. Like the environmental rhetoric Morton critiques with his notion of dark ecology, these exhibitions are perhaps too “strongly affirmative, extraverted, and masculine” in how they “simulate...immediacy” between problem and solution . They pose the Anthropocene as a state of romanticized ruin that will be easily “saved” or “rebooted” without any threat to humanity or anyone/thing else on the planet. To put it frankly, the planet doesn’t need us to save it, we need us to save us from ourselves—whether that means avoiding catastrophe or accepting it as an alternative to world-domination. The ecological problems we face are not going to be solved by eco-art, representations of fake-nature or collections of plastic hybrids from polluted coastlines.
However, that doesn’t mean that art and design have no role to play in how we theorize the Anthropocene. Projects that open up discourse about particular issues of the Anthropocene, those that invite “hesitation, uncertainty, irony, and thoughtfulness” (i.e. the ingredients for dark ecology) show more promise . The projects I will discuss in the following section foster critical thinking in relation to particular issues of the Anthropocene. Each engages with a bit of dark ecology to presents its own Anthropocenic narratives.
Between Art and Design
Each of these projects lies somewhere in the space between art and design, and this decisive liminality lends them power. The makers I will discuss each define their role differently and purposefully, believing that the classifications of “artist” or “designer” affect the context, reception and critical discussion of their work. Though some of the makers I discuss might disagree with me, I believe there are positive outcomes to be gained from exhibiting radical, speculative work in the fields of both art and design. By making use of these titles respectively, these makers are able to tactically intervene in the social and political sphere and gain traction for their work in the fields of science and emerging technologies.
Jae Rhim Lee begins her 2011 TED Talk (titled “My Mushroom Burial Suit”) with three words meant to make the audience more comfortable with the unorthodox nature of her proposal: “I’m an artist” . Despite being labeled by TED as “the strangest TED Talk you'll ever see,” her label seems to work—the audience can be heard chuckling (albeit nervously) at her mention of flesh- eating fungus, awkward silences are few, and she is met with a fairly large round of applause at the end . While Lee chooses to call herself an artist for TED, the work she produces is deeply involved in environmental science and design. Lee isn’t just imagining a solution to the post- mortem release of bodily toxins, she is engaging in substantial research and prototyping to curb the problem. In this sense, she has very different aims than the self-proclaimed conceptual designers I’ll be discussing. For the same reason that Lee prefers the label of “artist,” there are others making work like hers who oppose it. In their book Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby make a case for why they call their work “design” rather than “art,” stating, “We expect art to be shocking and extreme. Critical design needs to be closer to the everyday; that’s where its power to disturb lies” . While many of their projects may seem farther from the everyday than Lee’s Infinity Burial Project, the design context is extremely important to Dunne and Raby and others like them. These makers want to eschew the comfort beckoned by the term “artist”; art is “easier to deal with” because at the end of the day it remains in the gallery, but a radical work of design continues to disturb, as “it suggests that the everyday life as we know it could be different, that things could change” . This invitation to speculation is where the power lies in the works I’ll discuss by Jae Rhim Lee, Dunne and Raby, and the artists
behind Dear Climate. The futures each propose lie somewhere between the utopian and the uncanny, and are ripe with questions rather than solutions. This is where the prefixes “critical,” “speculative” and “conceptual” come in: unlike mainstream design, which is supposed to affirm the status quo and be easily assimilated, critical, conceptual and speculative design raises awareness, exposes assumptions, sparks debate and provokes action against cultural norms . It presents the opposite of an easy answer by revealing that the problems we face are incredibly complex. While many art and curatorial projects that address the Anthropocene run the risk of making our current geological crisis seem easy to reckon with—perhaps as an unintentional side effect of trying to make the concept approachable to mass audiences—speculative design may offer an avenue for parsing out the complexity of the situation. This is not to say that speculative design projects that address the Anthropocene will solve the problem—the fact that they don’t is what makes them constructive.
Thinking in the Anthropocene: Dear Climate?
How can we talk about the Anthropocene or global climate change without trying to solve the problem? Dear Climate is a web-based project by a group of artists and environmentalists in New York City—Marina Zurkow, Una Chaudhuri, Oliver Kellhammer, Fritz Ertl and Sarah Rothberg—that is decidedly non-instrumental (Figure 1). The project began in response to the overly affirmative and solutionist talk that occupies mainstream environmentalism in regards to climate change, and what the group refers to as the “survival community” . They state:
The old joke—“Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it”—isn’t so funny anymore. Lots of people are trying to do something about the weather. Climate change is on the geopolitical agenda, if only in time for us to realize that it’s too late to do anything meaningful. Maybe the problem’s not that no one’s been doing anything about the weather, but that we’ve been talking about it in the wrong way: the old “let’s fix it” way. Now that the weather’s changed, is it also time to change the way we talk about it? .
Dear Climate presents a series of posters and podcasts designed to “craft new kinds of personal engagement with climate change” that are filled with fear, fantasy and imagination rather than catastrophe, desperation and heroism. The project takes a playful approach to expanding our repertoire for talking about (and to) climate change; posters referencing advertising imagery and slogans depict “movements of mind” rather than calls to action—one might consider them thinkivist as opposed to activist (Figure 2). Rather than fixing the problem of climate change, Dear Climate suggests that humans might have to reorganize themselves socially, politically and geographically to radically adapt to the changing climate rather than conquer it. Dear Climate presents a repeal of human agency over the planet and an appeal to human agency over the human. As Zylinska points out, “many efforts to respond to the Anthropocene actually mobilize a certain notion of specieist, or more precisely humanist, self-interest...principally driven by species narcissism, or a desire for human survival” . While this might seem obvious, it is overlooked by many initiatives that address the Anthropocene, viewing a call to action as a distinctly post-humanist response. While Dear Climate still engages with the aesthetics of catastrophe and survival, the kind of survival that the project suggests seems decidedly makeshift and mobile.
While I don’t know that the effects of global warming will be as positive for non-human animals as the Dear Climate posters depict (a sort of return to the wild) the type of multi-species collaboration they reference isn’t quite as cozy as most—humans don’t get to keep their current political and social structures and become part of the pack. In a review for GeoCritique, Rory Rowan reminds us that despite the trend in art towards multi-species collaboration, we can’t expect that “what will inevitably emerge in the wake of violent ontological distinctions will be a cozy comfort zone of inclusion and participation” . After all the damage we’ve done—both for our own species and others—what non- humans would want to help us? If we really want to consider multi-species collaboration, we have to consider how much we are willing to give in terms of co-evolution and adaptation. In his essay “Some Trace Effects of the Post- Anthropocene: On Accelerationist Geopolitical Aesthetics,” Benjamin Bratton states, “the best of all possible news is that, should ‘we’ survive the Anthropocene, it will not be as ‘humans’” . Dear Climate invites us to think critically about what it means to live, think and feel in the Anthropocene, rather than perish under it.
Living in the Anthropocene: Dunne and Raby
Because the effects of the Anthropocene are so strongly tied to capitalism and colonialism, adapting to a changing climate might mean reimagining how we organize ourselves politically and socially. Alongside reconsidering our societies, the ways we rely on science and technology may also need revision. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are British designers and educators who for over 20 years have been using design as a tool for critical discourse to explore the cultural and ethical implications of technology, coining the term “critical design” in 1999. Dunne and Raby’s designs often have a cyborgian or post-human element to them; the relationships they draw between humans and objects are those of cohabitants and appendages. This dynamic implies a heightened responsibility between the designer, consumer and the technologies produced. This is especially true of projects that question how humans produce energy and utilize resources, such as Is This Your Future (2004), Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers (2009) and United Micro Kingdoms (2013).
United Micro Kingdoms presents four “fictional future” populations of England, each more cyborgian than the next in rather unconventional ways . Witty and intentionally far-fetched, United Micro Kingdoms (UMK) carries current technological routes to the extreme, revealing the cultural and ethical impacts that our technologies have and how they could radically alter our daily lives . The four proposed populations are as follows:
Digitarians depend on digital technology and all its implicit totalitarianism: tagging, metrics, total surveillance, tracking, data logging and 100% transparency. Their society is organised entirely by market forces; citizen and consumer are the same.
The Communo-nuclearist society is a no-growth, limited population experiment. Using nuclear power to deliver near limitless energy, the state provides everything needed for their continued survival. Although they are energy rich it comes at a price — no one wants to live near them. Under constant threat of attack or accident, they live on a continually moving, 3 kilometre, nuclear-powered mobile landscape.
The Anarcho-evolutionists abandon most technologies, or at least stop developing them, and concentrate on using science to maximise their own physical capabilities through training, DIY biohacking and self-experimentation. They believe that humans should modify themselves to exist within the limits of the planet rather than modifying the planet to meet their ever growing needs.
Bioliberals fully embrace biotechnology and the new values that this entails. Biology is at the centre of their world-view, leading to a radically different technological landscape to our own. Each person produces their own energy according to their needs. Bioliberals are essentially farmers, cooks and gardeners. Not just of plants and food, but of products too. Gardens, kitchens and farms replace factories and workshop .
While Dunne and Raby do not make direct reference to the Anthropocene, UMK engages with a range of techno-futures that reconfigure how humans relate to resources and the environment—a task we might have to set our imaginations to in response to the Anthropocene. Works of speculative design such as UMK might fit into what Bratton calls “Accelerationist aesthetics,” which conjures “prototypes of what comes after the inevitable Anthropocenic crashes, so that we might envision and evaluate our adaptations in advance” . To Bratton these prototypes are not simply “design innovations with which we might spend our way past death” but methods of “imagining without reserve” .
In one of the Royal College of Art’sSustain Talks, “Radical New Communities,” Dunne addresses the speculative nature of the project by stating that rather than using UMK to design practical solutions to change the world, “by directing the project at people’s imaginations...we can potentially open up perspectives on how the world is” . In this scenario, speculation is a radical act because it breaks with the cultural climate of today, where utopias and manifestos have fallen out of favor as impractical, and perpetual capitalism seems inevitable. UMK offers a plethora of potential paths and alternative futures.
The different citizens of the UMK, especially the Anarcho-evolutionists and Bioliberals (who seem most successfully adapted) use technology and scientific advancement to augment themselves rather than their environment (Figure 3). Though speculative, UMK reminds us that our political and social reconfigurations are our own and can be radically altered to fit the changing demands of life in the Anthropocene. Dunne and Raby’s inventions almost always present “parallel but possible worlds,” but these imaginings are never ones in which humans attain everything they desire effortlessly . Present always is a sense of dystopia and radical compromise with the technological and ecological powers-that-be— or that have come to be, in large part from neglecting to think of the future when producing for commodity markets. A precursor to UMK, Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers (2009) embraces body modification as a bottom-up approach to withering food resources (Figure 4). Instead of relying on government and industry to solve the food shortage, fictional foragers use a combination of synthetic biology and mechanical devices to glean nutrition out of their urban environment, mimicking the digestive systems of other creatures .
An earlier project, Is This Your Future? (2004), presents hypothetical products for three possible energy futures: the domestic production of hydrogen, bio-fuel from human waste, and meat- based microbial fuel cells . The project is aimed at children ages 7–14, and each product is depicted in scenarios in which children agree to produce energy for their families in exchange for pocket money from their parents (Figure 5). Each scenario is based on a real technology, causing the scenarios to seem evermore uncanny. Similar to UMK, the fiction lies not in the technology but in the cultural values surrounding it. Foragers and Is This Your Future? beg the question: What if we held ourselves more accountable for our food and energy? At the center of these projects is the speculation that rather than changing the world to suit the changing needs of the human population—an ability often placed at the very core of what defines “humanity”—we might transform ourselves and our technologies to fit the changing demands of the ecological and biological world we inhabit.
Dying in the Anthropocene: Jae Rhim Lee
?The projects I’ve discussed so far engage prospects for living in the Anthropocene, but what about dying in the Anthropocene? Jae Rhim Lee is an American visual artist, designer and researcher whose work reconfigures the relationship between human body and built and natural environments. Infinity Burial Project is a proposal for an alternative burial practice that remediates industrial toxins in the body that would otherwise be released back into the environment during body decomposition or cremation. Lee’s proposal doesn’t sound much like an “art” project—until she reveals that this remediation is to be accomplished by unique strains of fungi trained to eat human body tissue. Once successfully cultivated, the infinity mushroom will be incorporated into an Infinity Burial Suit embroidered with spore-infused thread (Figure 6), Alternative Embalming Fluid, Decompiculture Makeup and a kit of capsules to quicken the decomposition and remediation processes (Figure 7) .
In addition to asserting the materiality of the human body, Infinity Burial Project critiques the separation of nature and culture in traditional forms of environmentalism— wherein nature is something passive and pristine that humans must protect. Lee makes her audience fully aware that the toxic chemicals we’ve created are both in the environment and in our own bodies, and that the two are intimately and inevitably connected. As a result, “true environmental responsibility,” as Lee phrases it, requires we step back and look at ourselves as integral things in the larger environment-assemblage. Lee’s TED Talk about the project received a spot on Foreign Policy’s feature “The 10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored,” where the project is criticized solely for being “insane” and/or “too ahead of [our] time” . However, works like Lee’s force us to imagine alternatives to the flawed cultural systems we take for granted. Though still presenting Infinity Burial Project as art, Lee places the project in a non-art context of the public sphere, and people are terrified by her proposal. While Infinity Burial Project proposes a small solution to one aspect of anthropogenic environmental damage, it does not claim to solve the problems of the Anthropocene. Similar interventions, like the urban farming projects of Natalie Jeremijenko (FarmacyRX) are important because they do effect small changes that help humans survive effects of the Anthropocene . However, these projects must be considered in terms of scale; like the exhibitions at the Serpentine or The Hague referenced previously, we can’t look to these projects and declare that we’ve found a solution. Infinity Burial Project is more subversive because rather than helping humans survive the effects of the Anthropocene, it speculates on the long-view of material, chemical and biological life after the death of the human.
Many of the projects I’ve discussed are uncomfortable, not because they indulge in shock value, but because they address real ecological problems. Furthermore, they don’t indulge in easy solutions but engage radical imaginings: inviting us to re-envision our development of science and technology, our political and social structures, and our relation to others in a broader ecology. Current Anthropocene discourse is plagued by narratives that are heroic, solutionist and masculinist, and that re-assert human dominance over the planet. Rather than contributing to these kinds of narratives, art and design—and in particular critical, conceptual and speculative design—can act as platforms for critical and non-instrumental thinking, as they allow a space for envisioning radical futures.
This article was originally written for and published in Leonardo on August 2015 in Vol. 48, No. 4, Pages 338-347 © 2015 Kayla Anderson.
Thanks to Rory Rowan, Carlos M. Amador, Angela Last, and Giancarlo Sandoval for helping me remain critical.
1. Ian Sample, “Anthropocene: Is this the new epoch of humans?” The Guardian, 16 October 2014. ?
2. Joseph Stromberg, “What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It?” Smithsonian Magazine, January ?2013. ?
3. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) p. 2. ?
4. Joanna Zylinska, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2014) pp. ?19, 125. ?
5. Zylinska  p. 19. ?
6. Zylinska  pp. 14, 108. ?
7. Zylinska  p. 20. ?
8. Rory Rowan, “Art, The Anthropocene and the iPhone 3G,” GeoCritique, 31 May 2014. ?
9. “Adrián Villar Rojas: Today We Reboot the Planet,” ; “Yes Naturally,” ?. ?
10. Morton  p. 16. ?
11. Morton . ?
12. Jae Rhim Lee, “My Mushroom Burial Suit,” TED Global, July 2011. ?
13. Lee .
14. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013) p. 43. ?
15. Dunne and Raby . ?
16. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, “Critical Design FAQ,” 2007. ?
17. Marina Zurkow, Una Chaudhuri, Oliver Kellhammer, Fritz Ertl and Sarah Rothberg, “Dear ?Climate,” . ?
18. Zurkow . ?
19. Zylinska  pp. 129–130. ?
20. Rowan . ?
21. Benjamin Bratton, “Some Trace Effects of the Post-Anthropocene: On Accelerationist Geopolitical ?Aesthetics,” E-Flux Journal, #46, June 2013. ?
22. “Dunne & Raby,” Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, . ?
23. Dunne and Raby . ?
24. Dunne and Raby . ?
25. Bratton . ?
26. Bratton . ?
27. Anthony Dunne, “Radical New Communities,” Royal College of Art Sustain Talks 2013-14, ?. ?
28. Dunne and Raby . ?
29. Dunne and Raby . ?
30. Dunne and Raby . ?
31. Jae Rhim Lee, “Infinity Burial Project,” . ?
32. Joshua E. Keating, “The 10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored,” Foreign Policy, 17 May 2012. ?
33. Natalie Jeremijenjko, “Farmacy,” . ?