Jeremy Bolen, Heather Davis, Emily Eliza Scott, and Andrew Yang pooled their efforts to lead Sensing the Insensible: Aesthetics In, Through, and Against the Anthropocene, a group seminar at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s (HKW’s) 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue. In the following conversation, I meet with three of the four conveners to explore how aesthetic and political concerns are embroiled in conceptions of the Anthropocene and how we determine it’s origin.
Caroline Picard: It’s the last day of the HKW’s 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum and I am with three of four conveners from the Sensing the Insensible Seminar, Emily Scott, Jeremy Bolen, and Andrew Yang.
Andrew Yang: The fourth being Heather Davis.
Emily Scott: The four of us met at the last Anthropocene campus in the fall 2014.
Jeremy Bolen: Andy actually came up with the title for this seminar proposal because Emily and I were working on some projects together. Then Andy and I were working on some projects together so it happened in a very organic way.
AY: Yeah, I mean [Jeremy’s] artistic practice in photography combined with Emily’s background in art history and critical studies, plus my own sort of scientific/art/whatever interests, and Heather’s perspectives from women studies and literature: our collective fields gave us a unique way to consider what it means to represent something. In a visual or aesthetic sense of course, but also addressing the politics of representation, and visuality versus the many other ways that one might sense. We really wanted to also engage that possibility also.
ES: I actually remember a moment from the first campus during a really wonderful performance by the Otolith Group. At one point in this performative lecture, Kodwo Eshun mentioned, I think he was quoting Bruno Latour, though I bet others besides Latour have said this: Eshun made a link between aesthetics and sensitization. I remember thinking, “Oh I love this!” Their whole talk and art project—exhibited at the same time, Medium Earth—was about people who believe that they can sense or predict earthquakes by feeling it in their bodies, sometimes across the world. There was one woman in particular, Charlotte King, who had different parts of her body that tied to different geographies. There are actually a lot of people that believe that they can predict earthquakes. I thought that was an interesting way to think about embodied sensing. It wasn’t until a bit later that we came up with this idea of taking up “aesthetics” and going back to its original Greek meaning: “to perceive or feel.”
CP: Do you find the Anthropocene to be a useful frame for aesthetics?
AY: You can pose the question as you did, so that the Anthropocene is a frame for aesthetics, but we are also interested how aesthetics might be a framing tool for the Anthropocene. That also reveals my own background in the natural sciences, but assuming there is an Anthropocene condition, how does an aesthetic approach give you different access to considering that whole scheme, that whole concept, that whole material and temporal reality? My own view is that our cultural production, as well as the ways that we engage the world, should address “the reality of things.” I was thinking more about aesthetics for Anthropocene as opposed to Anthropocene for aesthetics.
CP: Do you mean to say that shaping and developing the Anthropocene is an aesthetic question?
AY: I think both and that really came out of the seminar with some sophistication. The concept of the Anthropocene is premised on the fact that humans have been these causal agents on a planetary scale. The question is, given that we’ve had that effect, what kind of new causes can we be, what kind of agency can we bring to it? This question of understanding, of shaping the metaphor but also like shaping land, shaping the air, shaping our representations to ourselves and to each other about what all of those things are…We are at a stage now where images have a geological impact as far as I’m concerned and so everything kind of counts in that way. I think it’s all the above.
ES: Yeah, I’ve thought a lot too about the term “Anthropocene” and a number of counter-terms, or terms that critique the Anthropocene—and what kind of work they do. In many cases because, the term itself has so many problems it’s paradoxical; the term could either signify the ultimate centering of the human or the ultimate de-centering of the human depending on which perspective you come from. Then of course there is an obvious problem with lumping all anthropos into one and the flattenings that come along with that, and what kind of geographical biases might come up. The Anthropocene term becomes a key…It’s a framing device for the world.
AY: Yeah, it’s true.
ES: It opens certain kinds of stories and I think a lot of people are very invested in what kinds of stories are being built. What the political material effects of those stories are and what the Anthropocene as a term either opens up or shuts down. Others have created the term “Capitalocene,” for instance—Jason Moore’s term originally, but Donna Haraway also took it up—which provides a different frame of course.
CP: Is the question of aesthetics related to how we decide when the Anthropocene officially began?
ES: Sure. One thing that Heather and I discussed is the considerable amount of weight on around dating the Anthropocene. This year the International Stratigraphic Commission will make a decision about whether or not it’s an official term; they are also tasked with assigning a date. Whatever date is chosen will really inform what kinds of stories are told. There are a lot of people like Heather who—and I tend toward this direction as well—think framing the Anthropocene through colonialism would be an important designation.
CP: Wait, why?
ES: Because it would frame understanding about these complex, Anthropocenic interactions in a politicized way. If the officially-designated Anthropocene start date becomes the first nuclear explosion in 1945, that offers a geopolitical and technological framing, one that opens up another particular set of narratives. Heather made a great point in her introductory input, which came straight out of the introduction to a book she co-edited with Etienne Turpin, Art in the Anthropocene. They argue that the Anthropocene is an aesthetic event.
JB: It’s interesting to go back to the origins question in aesthetics. I agree with you, Emily, but the Stratigraphic Commission is also looking for a trace that impacts the entire earth at one moment and leaves a permanent trace. That’s why 1945 becomes a strong contender. If we rely on their criteria, I wonder what role aesthetics play in deciding the origins.
AY: I suppose as a trace it has to be something that we can be aware of, that can be measurable not just for a snub of a minute but for the lasting future. Maybe as a corrective to what I said before, I think the Anthropocene is a concept but maybe more than that, it’s fundamentally a story, it’s real. Because it writes human history into natural history and a human perspective into a geological, deep time framework. There are a lot of political stakes and importance for the term, but I also think there are metaphysical and existential ones; and those are political as well.
CP: I’m excited by how the constructed and agreed-upon narrative would be as important, somehow, as the material and scientific events themselves…
AY: A narrative gives you self awareness; it’s the story you tell yourself. It is fundamentally an aesthetic proposition because it’s creating a story for oneself that’s built into another much, much deeper story.
ES: People want official determination to legitimize the Anthropocene, and although there’s a feeling that stratigraphers have to find a material trace, that’s nevertheless a very particular way of framing something. It emphasizes geologic matter as a determining factor, representing the way in which science is seen as the defacto authority. I think there a lot of people want to question that assumption. Is it stratigraphers that should be the ones to ultimately decide if the Anthropocene exists or not based on their material findings?
Our seminar explored questions about how the Anthropocene has, to a large extent, been imaged through or represented via a regime of data, scientific language, and a set of representations. Whether it’s the hockey stick graph of climate change, or images of melting glaciers or lots of climate models et cetera, or the emphasis on this geological uniform kind of layer. A lot of people coming from art, culture, politics, or history backgrounds see their expert perspectives as equally important.
JB: This is relevant to the question of origins because it’s become a truly extra-disciplinary investigation, where so many different fields of research are involved. I’m interested to see what they come with up for the origins and who exactly is involved in that decision when it’s finalized.
AY: I think like the –cene in the Anthropocene, asserts a sense of recency, but you wouldn’t know what’s recent without first determining what’s past. That deep past is structured around scientific sensing. I’m not saying that the past and the present—as science constructs them—is always the best approach, but that’s the frame we know and use.
CP: It’s amazing to recognize how deeply scientific thought is integrated with conceptions of past and present.
AY: This new awareness about the true scale of impacts humanity is having on the planet are only sensible and could only be realized through scientific abstraction, reduction, remote sensing. I don’t want to throw that out as if that’s something that’s overly reductive, and abstract and de-humanizing. I still want to defend the virtue of a scientific knowledge but it just can’t be the end point.
JB and ES: Yeah, I agree fully.
CP: Is there a difference between aesthetics and ethics in a way that you are thinking through cross-disciplinary, framing, and narrative?
ES: We didn’t plan to talk explicitly about ethics but it’s interesting how many of our discussions were absorbed by that question. How much can I do, what can I do, where should I position my work, what kinds of practices will lead to material effects in the world.
JB: I feel like we are at a such a different point today than we were two years ago. It feels like information about the Anthropocene has been metabolized; now there’s a want for action more than just discussion. A discussion occurs but what comes up is what do we do and what are the ethics surrounding those actions? I think that overarching themes are the politics of whatever that action might be and the politics of sensing.
ES: Heather opened up her talk with something from Art in the Anthropocene which—I’m paraphrasing but—said that basically art offers a non-moral approach. The virtue in being non-moral is that allows one to hold contradictory perspectives. Her framing of the moral is that it’s rule driven and prescriptive and it can define what’s allowable and what’s not.
That was a controversial statement and that led to this question about whether we want to distinguish morality from ethics and what kind of difference that was. That’s a philosophical rabbit hole, but in her view, the moral was this space of basically hierarchical closing down of new and complex possibilities.
CP: Is an ethical space any different?
ES: I think we accepted that the ethical is the space of ongoing exploration that is not necessarily centered on what’s right or what’s wrong, but rather what’s of value and how you determine or cultivate notions of value. In that regard, I think I would say inherently aesthetics is an ethical proposition because this is a question of why do you even bother to commit yourself in terms of awareness or in terms of representations. Because now, materially or otherwise, every artistic or aesthetic gesture is basically a gesture of production, whether it’s physical, psychological, or energetic—those have real costs. They spend real energy, they absorb people’s attention, sometimes away from things that they could do otherwise. I think for better or for worse it’s fundamentally an ethical consideration for all fields now.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
Guest Post by Faye KahnÂ¹
While social evidence that the rich is dividing farther away from the poor becomes more & more unavoidable, it seems that at the same time the art world is inversely nudging the them closer together. Traditional distinctions between “high” & “low” art are fading. In his essay “Comrades of Time,” discussing the definition of the term “contemporary,” Boris Groys states that “â€¦at the turn of the twenty-first century, art entered a new era-one of mass artistic production, & not only mass art consumption.” Art-making is no longer restricted to a higher, educated or professional class. With the encouragement of advancing technologies from the ball point pen to the smartphone & increased visibility of the individual creative practice via the internet has reified this notion of art as “mass-cultural practice” ad infinitum (probably to some ad nauseum). To track the currency of art between upper & lower economic & academic classes & attempt to elucidate the creation of connecting middle classes of art, for instance independent comics & publication as well as social media experiments, it may be helpful to recognize the presence of commercial aesthetics in all classes. By following this reciprocal currency of consumerist media to high art & back, there are many significant signs pointing to a possible future of a classless art world.
Imagine this daisy in an advertisement for a department store chain. Now imagine it in a comic made by a peer. Lastly, imagine (or remember) this daisy in a contemporary art museum, as a part of a painting, a 300-editioned print of which is sold for more than $1,000. Of course this image is fairly well known- it was designed by artist Takashi Murakami in the mid-late 90s & repeated throughout his career in various incarnations (in carnations……….). What is unique about this daisy, however, is that to the unfamiliar eye its origins & environment could believably be in any of these three locations, or strata of art. It is difficult to say this of other contemporary arts images- a Jeff Koons sculpture, a performance piece by Marina AbramoviÄ‡, a photo by Wolfgang Tillmans (although this might be grounds for an interesting project). Most canâ€™t be conceived in the commercial sphere-until the work becomes safely art-historical, when they can be reproduced on consumer goods & sold to a nostalgic or young audience-until then they are works intentionally too “conceptual” or “difficult” to be at home in a consumer setting where expediency of communication is paramount.
Murakami was/is famously aware of this & was actively attempting to collapse gaps between high & lowbrow art communities. Naturally, other internationally renowned pop artists like Lichtenstein & Warhol & more recently Philip Guston & Yoshimoto Nara have exercized a similar style. I stop at Murakami, not because I’m particularly fond of his work, but because his conceptual “Superflat” agenda is well articulated & aware of the collapse of economic boundaries. “When comparing Â a half a million dollars to ‘free,'” says Murakami, comparing to his blind-assortment collectible figure series (‘free’ with a purchase of candy) to his life-size statues of the same characters residing in contemporary arts institutions, “there’s an overwhelmingly different sense of values, almost a confusion of values.”Â² This “confusion of values”Â intellectualized by Murakami in the art scene in the late 90s/early ’00s is a significant checkpoint in the travel of commercial aesthetics, but this consciousness not exclusive to artists of highly educated stature (according to Wikipedia, Murakami has a Ph.D. from the Tokyo University of the Arts) but also in artists in so-called lower, consumer target-market classes.
Before I continue, here’s quick review these “levels of art” as crookedly defined for the purpose of this essay:
1) High Art (elite)
2) “DIY” or “Low” Art
3) Commercial Art (consumerist)
“High Art” referring to work usually made by career artists & found in the gallery, museum, & similarly institutionalized art biennials, fairs, etc., with a prestigious milieu of critics, buyers, curators & so on. For level 2, I’m wont to trade in the negative term “low” (granted this negativity is a badge of pride for some) for “DIY,” which as an adjective has come to encompass the “mass practice” of unprofessional quotidian participation in the making of art (“unprofessional” or “quotidian” not as pejoratives, but as neutral descriptors)-including student work. Level 3 is one populated by masters of an aesthetic practice but whose products are intended to be consumed by an unassuming hoi polloi. Although this stratum by nature lacks the conceptual, self-aware qualities arguably integral to defining something as “art,” certainly artistic techniques are employed (& exploited). Not only this, but it is common for early-career artists to hold jobs in this industry for obvious financial reasons, allowing them to coexist on both levels, while to varying degrees keeping their personal work separate.
This commercial universe, simultaneously seductive & repulsive, has provided us a strange key to a universalized art practice. It consists of a language instantly readable & in turn available to all to appropriate (throw legality into the wind). The visual toolbox of late capitalist propaganda is one of monumental typography, drop shadows, heavy outlines, over-emotive caricatures, light reflecting textures, shining sparkling neons, pastels, & primaries, & supreme cleanliness, (even when portraying something dirty). Whether you want simple geometrics or complex mechanics there is a commercial toolset for you. Anyone born in a first world country (& to a lesser degree, beyond) in the past 50 years has come to age in a society increasingly saturated by this imagery & fast motion. Having been the target market of any number of advertising campaigns at every given moment of a lifetime, a significant number of artists, whose headcount increases with the approach of the contemporary period, have co-opted this style in more radical ways than simple parody. Take for example (moving beyond the household names of 60s pop artists) Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats collage series,Â the gradients (among many other things) of Cory Archangel or the clusterfuck of American commercialism in Ryan Trecartin videos. All of this work is, while certainly of high conceptual &/or critical value, speaking with a language that is, though perverted, immediately legible or familiar to anyone who has experienced pop culture.
This artistic momentum is surprisingly well represented by the current proliferation of amateur comic artists, many of whom are vocally & visibly aware of the high art world. It’s safe to say that comics, originally a consumer product, have become widely accepted as an outlet for personal expression, like photography, that has become recently emancipated from its irreproducible commercial status to the disposal creatives of all ages & classes. The beginnings of this can be attributed in significant part to movements like the underground comix scene in the 60s & 70s with artists like Rick Griffin & R. Crumb (among many others) carrying through to cartoonists of the 80s & 90s such as Gary Panter & Raymond Pettibon. These cartoonists, along with experimental anthologies like RAW & Weirdo expanded comics into experimental territory, communicating more with high art logics than their syndicated predecessors/counterparts (psychedelics are a shortcut to philosophy!?). Counterintuitively, while extending the medium into traditionally elitist domains (psychedelics are a shortcut to the philosophical!?), they simultaneously introduced comic-making to a wider, younger, & unprofessional bracket. Now, comics were not only an art to be consumed, but an art practice to actively participate in, as much or as little as one consumed them.
The alternative comics community today is expansive to say the least. Contemporary DIY comics anthologies like Mould Map, Sonatina Comics, & Happiness (to name just a tiny fraction of those existing today), tumblrs, Â & conventions (Brooklyn Comix & Graphics Fest (although recently discontinued!), CAKE, TCAF, etc.) document hundreds of artists per year. Comics have gradually become another near-neutral visual alphabet or option for people to represent themselves with: similar to how everyone with a camera can now be a photographer/self documentarian, anyone with a writing tool can now be a comics artists/self documentarian.
Despite this hyperactivitity & close relationship to the art world, independent comics remain largely ignored by institutionalized critical artistic discourse. While there’s no shortage of books, journals, & blogs dedicated to dissecting comics culture & composition, they remain intended for readers interested in comics specifically & lack a serious concern for communicating with the larger contemporary art world. In other words, while the artwork straddles all strata of art, the reception does not (or does so very disproportionately). When consulting with a few active comic artists about this, many of them responded with reference to a class-related animosity between the comics & high art world in one direction or another, or rather, to the anti-intellectual/elitist (respectively) attitude either of the two fosters. On the one hand, comic artist & editor of the Happiness comic anthology series, Leah Wishnia states, “…art/alt/underground comics are a rejection of the elitism propagated by the fine art market, and the institution behind the fine art market may resent this and therefore, continues to label the majority of comics as ‘low art.'” At the same time, comic artist Blaise Larmee expressed a disillusion at the contemporary alt-comics sphere for its perceived blandness to outside audiences & Austin English admitted to looking to fine art for more inspired organization of text, characters & figure drawing.Â Unsurprisingly, the comics blog “Comets Comets” (the name a riff on the popular “Comics Comics Mag” (now also defunct) ran by Dan Nadel of Picturebox Publishing, Tim Holder, & Frank Santoro) maintained by Larmee, English, & comics artists Jason Overby & Carrie Bren was one of the only (if not the only) sources of writing that started to look at comics in a conceptually analytical way.
“Where does form end and content begin?
American comics came from newspapers and manga from ukiyo-e. There was no preciousness about the drawings that led to the printed matter until more recently. Original art can be beautiful to look at, but it’s beside the point: comics are perfect objects that have been formed by combining the raw material of an individual’s (or group of them) vision with the machines of mass production (computers, these days). They’re able to (like other modern media) lack the Bodhidharma-style transmission of artistic consciousness “Art” traffics in and allow many people to have and enjoy the same content cheaply.”
Due to the internet visibility of artists at all moments in their careers, we are more aware of this in-between group of young artists, concurrently existing in all levels of art, & in turn the levels are more connected, regardless of said existing tensions. Artists emerging from the 90s Providence Fort Thunder junk-art-music-noise-space-universe like Brian Chippendale, Matt Brinkman, & arts collective Forcefield are a few examples using this new form of commercial art inspired neo(n)materialism in a way that has caught the eye of institutions such as the Whitney BiennialÂ & new galleries. Vancouver-based artist Chris Von Szombathy utilizes cartoon, illustration & commercial vernacular to communicate severe & conceptual topics beyond what’s normally associated with their style. Austin English put together a show at Baltimore Open Space exhibiting young artists with comic-influence such as James Ulmer & Leif Low-Beer. Strange (reciprocal?) lateral appropriation (to borrow a term from Sean Joseph Patrick Carney) is happening between artists inside & outside of the comics world not only in places conducive to such activity like tumblr but also in the gallery space. All of these instances are notable because they are garnering attention while they are happening, while they are “contemporary” rather than after they have become art historical (the art world is not lacking in Gary Panter & R. Crumb shows).
There is much more to say & countless more artists to consider in the economy of aesthetics between the different classes of art. It brings to mind for example the many lives of anime character AnnLee traded between artists Pierre Huyghe & Â Philippe Parreno (her latest incarnation by Tino Seghal at the 2013 Frieze Art Fair, discussed here & many other places), the universe of fan art (recently considered here in Hyperallergic), “designer” vinyl toys & statues, & the time-based worlds of animation, photography, & film. The entirety of DisMagazine seems to be dedicated to promoting alternative use of commercial aesthetics.
I recently walked into a new-ish local gallery space called Beginnings in Brooklyn to find a show exhibiting 3 artists: a painter, a photographer, & a writer. The painter, Jamian Juliano-Villani immediately caught my eye as her work subscribed to a neon(n)materialist agenda, reappropriating known graphics like animation smear-frames & 70s illustrations by Moscoso with updated dayglo color schemes. The photographs, initially seeming unrelated, were by Jan Kempenaers & documented the abandoned Yugoslavian monuments to the socialist republic. This visual work was punctuated by framed essays referring to the rise & fall of democratic capitalism, written by Wolfgang Streeck, director of the Max Planck Institue for the Study of Societies (MPIfG), based in Cologne, Germany. The sheer variety of this show, while on second look (& after discussion with curator Matt Giordano) managing to be cohesive through the themes of ideological criticism, along with the newness of the gallery I think attests to novel locations in which commercial aesthetics can now comfortably exist & will appear more frequently in the future. Sternberg press, who published the original â€œWhat is Contemporary Artâ€ e-flux edition from which I extracted the Boris Groys article quoted in the introductory paragraph recently posted on their tumblr an upcoming volume on â€œAltcomics.â€ All of this, while egos will never completely allow a true socialist art world, is evidence that surprising juxtapositions & convalescence of all three classes of art are becoming more possible & will bring artistic practice & hopefully also criticism to more audiences without losing conceptual value or legibility.
H. FAYE KAHNÂ is a freelance animator in NYC & Â a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsoredÂ WFMUÂ in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
1. Many thanks to Matt Giordano of Beginnings Gallery, Blaise Larmee, Jason Overby, Austin English, & Leah Wishnia for taking time to chat with me about these subjects & providing important examples. Thanks also to Chris Von Szombathy who discussed this with me about this at length in 2011.
2.Â© Murakami,Â Takashi Murakami: Company Man, by Scott Rothkopf pg. 137
This week: Duncan talks to Professor James Elkins about the Stone Summer Theory Institute and this years theme Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-Aesthetic.
The Stone Summer Theory Institute is week-long school in contemporary art theory. It is held in Chicago, in July, at the School of the Art Institute.
Each year brings together an unprecedented gathering of international scholars to discuss an unresolved question in contemporary art theory. This year’s subject is the aesthetic and one of its opposites, the anti-aesthetic. Some art practices aim at aesthetic value, while other art practices aim to do something in society, in politics, or to identity. The difference between those two conceptions of art is one of the deepest unresolved questions of current art practice.
Infosthetics.com a site dedicated to collecting, sharing and promoting the art of pleasing data visualization celebrates it’s 5th birthday with a flash visualization of all their posts over that time broken down by time, category, comments & author using color and line. Bad at Sports would like congratulate Infosthetics “Where form follows data” and we follow them. Keep up the good work!