Ömür Harmanşah, University of Illinois at Chicago
“No more can humans see the Anthropocene, extending across centuries, through dimensions and across time. It can only be visualized… to visualize the Anthropocene is to invoke the aesthetic.”
Nicholas Mirzoeff, Visualizing the Anthropocene (2016)
“It might not be the Earth that is destroyed in a final, sublime, apocalyptic flash by a wandering planet; it might be our Globe, the global itself, our ideal notion of the Globe, that has to be destroyed, so that a work of art, an aesthetic, can emerge.
Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia (2017)
In his book The Right to Look, Nicholas Mirzoeff articulates visuality and the visualizing of history as a particular apparatus or a weapon for authority in the era of the late capitalist world order and the epoch of the Anthropocene. He draws attention to the war of images (a battlefield) and the intensified politics of visualization. Visuality is an affective power discourse that runs deep in history of landscapes, and as an Anthropocene-aesthetic-capitalist complex includes “classification, separation, and aestheticization”. Contemporary landscapes are parceled out into clearly bordered heterotopic zones: zones of industrial production, extreme extraction (mines etc.), industrial agriculture, urbanization, heritage parklands (archaeological sites, national parks, wild life refuges, etc.). In-between these parcels, real places and landscapes of livelihood and dwelling that used to belong world communities are suffocated. While citizens are welcomed to heritage parklands, they are denied the right to look into other heterotopias such as sites of extreme extraction.
Visuality is an affective power discourse that runs deep in history of landscapes, and as an Anthropocene-aesthetic-capitalist complex includes “classification, separation, and aestheticization”.
Visualization of this world is at the core of the politics of ecology, and techno-scientific visions play a big role in its everyday visual discourse: declassified military satellite images (ironically labeled as “remote sensing”), quantifications of ecological conditions and climate change, imagery produced by surveillance cameras and drones, news media imagery of war, videos published by terrorist organizations on YouTube, Facebook and so on. John Paul Ricco referred to this as the “appropriation of the pornographic by militarized neoliberalism” or war porn (Ricco 2014). This imagery floods our news feeds every single day and in the background, the reverberations of the old colonial idea of the conquest of the planet still percolate. What we have in front of us in this bombardment and overload of imagery is the construction of a Weltlandschaft (world-landscape) similar to the sense of the term in European Romantic painting. However instead of oil on canvas, these landscapes are built and animated in pixels, through the contemporary technologies of visualization. This is what Mirzoeff calls visuality. It is not a discourse that is limited to state discourse or colonial narratives, but also participated by the academia and the military.
Visualization also has a major role in the making of what Saskia Sassen calls “the geographies of expulsion.” The emergence of a new extractive logics of expulsions points us to disposable landscapes where “people, enterprises and places are expelled from social and economic orders of our time.” (Sassen 2014). On the local and regional scale, expulsions translate into disposable landscapes and disposable lives that are sacrificed readily with the help of deep running narratives of ecological unworthiness, degraded landscapes and persistent poverty that is ingrained and inevitable. We must understand that in every single case, such deeply embedded discourses of disposability are constructions of a certain kind, a form of visualization.
This is then the challenge that arises in front of us: is it possible to produce a form of “countervisuality” (to use Mirzoeff’s term) that would challenge and undermine the persistent discourses of disposability. In what possible ways the production of countervisuality can be used as a form of engaging with political ecologies in a local and regional scale and to invoke an emancipatory process towards environmental, social, and climate justice? “What imaginaries might be possible under the sign of the Anthropocene, and how they could be constructed to refuse both false hope and the apocalyptic foreclose of possible futures?” ask Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (2015). What are possible interventions of contemporary art to local and regional politics of the environment and have an impact on the debates of the Anthropocene? Anna Tsing writes in her book Mushroom at the End of the World (2015: 6), “Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin. Still, these places can be lively despite announcements of their death… In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin. Our first step is to bring back curiosity. Unencumbered by the simplifications of progress narratives, the knots and pulses of patchiness are there to explore.” Tsing invites us to sharpen our ability that has become so essential in exploring the Anthropocene landscapes and field sites: “the arts of noticing,” while Julie Cruikshank invites us to listen to the glaciers in Do Glaciers Listen? (2010). Researching landscapes of the Anthropocene, we must follow their advice, and find ways to visualize and narrate these unrecognized signs and residues of life. With the full responsibility of carrying out fieldwork in the new era of ecological precarity and post-humanity, we must adjust ourselves by developing new sensitivities to multi-species worlds and more-than-human histories, and to develop new regimes of care and collaboration.
In what possible ways the production of countervisuality can be used as a form of engaging with political ecologies in a local and regional scale and to invoke an emancipatory process towards environmental, social, and climate justice?
To sum up and to return to the opening quotes for this essay, one can say that working towards an exhibition that will (counter-)visualize the Anthropocene from a place-based perspective, there is a powerful potential in front of us, to define a new aesthetics. This new aesthetics of counter-visualization blurs disciplinary boundaries defining politics, art, scientific inquiry and humanities research and therefore engages their media of representation. Just as advocating political ecology as engaged practice in the field is fundamental for the present project, the audio-visual/material/olfactory/haptic presentation of this kind of work in the gallery space as a form of collective expression gains importance. Our emphasis in the local requires a move away from the entrenched image of the blue planet from space as a metaphor for ideals of globalization, since the planet has failed to fulfill the progress narratives that had been imposed on it. What will replace this image when we embrace the creative potentials of sub-optimal living on a damaged planet, and when we come to the realization of the immense variety of poetic ways that world communities have long crafted such lifestyles, created such counter-images?
Cruikshank, Julie; 2010. Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. University of British Columbia Press.
Davis, Heather and Etienne Turpin (eds); 2015. Art in the Anthropocene. Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics. Environments and Epistemologies. Open Humanities Press.
Latour, Bruno; 2017. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Polity Press.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas; 2011. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Duke University Press.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas; 2016. “Visualizing the Anthropocene” Public Culture 26/2: 213-232.
Ricco, John Paul; 2014. “Pornographic Faith: Two Sources of Naked Sense at the Limits of Belief and Humiliation,” in Porn Archives, edited by Tim Dean, Steven Ruszczycky, David Squires. Duke University Press, 338-355.
Sassen, Saskia; 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Harvard University Press/Belknap Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt; 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.
Tsing, Anna; Heather Swanson; Elaine Gan; Nils Bubandt (eds); 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. University of Minnesota Press.