Plant Humans of the Future: An Interview with Saya Woolfalk

August 30, 2016 · Print This Article

Saya Woolfalk Installation at the Seattle Art Museum in the Disguise Exhibit, 2015 - Photo by Nathaniel Willson

Saya Woolfalk Installation at the Seattle Art Museum in the Disguise Exhibit, 2015 – Photo by Nathaniel Willson

Saya Woolfalk is a New York-based artist who, for the last decade, has been building an elaborate and multi-dimensional narrative about alternate cultures. Woolfalk’s physical installations document the artifacts of these cultures—specifically the No Placeans (plant humans) and the future human culture that discovered No Placean bones, the Empathics—using ethnography-museum displays strategies that she populates with digital projections, elaborate costumes and mannequins, paintings, artifacts, and totems. With that intersection at play, Woolfalk offers alternative models for cultural exchange, societal hierarchy, and the way they mirrors many own conventional norms today.

Caroline Picard: 
What is No Place?

Saya Woolfalk: No Place is a project I worked on from 2006-2008 with filmmaker and anthropologist Rachel Lears. It was scripted and conceived by collecting the utopian desires of people in our communities. Through a series of ethnographic interviews, the story of No Place emerged. The No Placeans are plant humans who change gender and color, transform into the landscape when they die, and repurpose refuse into usable technologies.

CP: Did that vision of utopia continue to evolve in your work after 2008?

SW: Once this collectively imagined “utopia” was established I began to think about how people in the present could become the plant humans of the future. In 2009, I worked with a group of women dancers to create the first Ritual of the Empathics. Then in 2010, I collaborated with biologists at Tufts University to hash out how humans might actually become part plant in a project called The Institute of Empathy.

In 2012, The Institute of Empathy (IoE) curated and lent an exhibition of objects, dioramas, and videos at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ. In this exhibition The Empathics describe how they find a group of No Placean bones into the woods of upstate New York. A fungus on the bones stimulates a physiological mutation that allows Empathics to easily cross species by integrating various genetic materials into their DNA. The nonprofit organization IoE was established to study this new morphology and distill the mutation process into a multi stage system so that any ordinary human can opt into becoming an Empathic.

Screen Shot from Institute of Empathy (IoE) wesbsite

Screenshots from Institute of Empathy (IoE) website

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 8.49.11 AM


CP: It seems like you’re talking about cultural exchange, where the fungus becomes a radical agent between Empathics, No Placeans, and the fungus itself. What was it about fungus that makes it a good multi-species ambassador?

SW: When I interviewed the biologists at Tufts, I gave them the backstory for the plant humans of No Place. I then asked what might make people from the present hybridize in such a radical way. One of the researchers offered the example of a fungus that implants itself inside of an ant. The ant is generally risk averse, but the introduction of the fungus alters both its behavior and morphology. Sprouting out of its host body, the fungus eventually kills the ant. When I saw an image of this violent rupture and subsequent transformation, it seemed to be the perfect inspiration for the origination story of the Empathics.

CP: I’m interested in how you borrow scientific, ethnographic, and artistic strategies to build not just new cultural narratives, but also objects and installations. Can you say more about how you incorporate and refract biological, anthropological, and artistic methodologies?

SW: In the visual art program at Brown, we were offered a variety of classes where we could explore combining the methods of art and science. After grad school, I moved to Maranhao, Brazil with my husband, cultural anthropologist Sean Mitchell. We lived in his field site for two years and this is when I began to borrow anthropological methods for thinking about and making my own work. I also got a Fulbright to do research into folkloric performance traditions in northeastern Brazil, which is how I met Rachel.  When we got back to the States, she and I decided to collaborate to create the short film I mentioned, Ethnography of No Place.  That was the first project I made that really blended artistic and anthropological methods into a single project.

CP: One of the things that struck me about the Empathics is that they are described as being plant/human hybrids; they are very adaptive and easily absorb different influences. I loved this idea because in some way I feel like you are articulating a bridge between nature and culture, which is typically difficult for Western philosophic and cultural frameworks to embrace. What was it about plants that made you interested in plant/human hybridity?  

SW: I spent summers of my childhood going to elementary school in rural Japan were there was an emphasis on learning about plant systems in. We nurtured plants, learned about their ecosystems, and relationships with humans.

In 1999, when I was a junior in college, I went to my first Venice biennial. At the biennial I encountered the Kaki Tree project, in which a singe persimmon tree survived the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. This mother tree emerged out of a catastrophic historic event and its human collaborators stimulated intercultural exchanges using her saplings. On their website they describe how “Art cultivates the imagination to help us feel others’ pain and creativity to build a new world. It goes beyond borders, religion, race and even language, and helps us feel sympathy for each other.” The structure and drives of this project impacted how I wanted to conceive my future work.

CP: What continues to draw you to the Empathics? Do you think of their narrative as a kind of medium?

SW: I always wanted to create a project that would allow me to think about cross cultural relationships and hybridization but did not want to use my personal story or standard tropes of multiculturalism.

CP: ChimaTEK is a corporation developed for the Empathics, by the Empathics, to help with their individual pursuit of self-improvement.

SW: ChimaTEK is the corporate branch of the IoE; through this corporation, the Empathics have patented a multi-step process with home-use technologies that make interspecies and intersubjective hybridization available to all.

CP: Am I right in thinking that the corporation is an ambiguous and even distopic figure in your narrative. Would you say the corporation is kind of dark mirror for the Empathics? 

SW: The corporation is intentionally ambiguous and distopic. When I first conceptualized the project in 2006, ChimaTEK was in my notes as The Land of the Pleasure Machines. In this early iteration of the project, the Pleasure Machines are humans who give up their flesh and take on robotic bodies. As No Place and the Empathics developed their own logics, I revised the story to explore what happens when research that seems to be utopian gets coopted into a corporate logic. ChimaTEK allows users to wipe their identities clean and download specially configured identity algorithms. What do we self-select if we are capable of this kind of transformation?

CP: That makes me think about the power of fictional narratives, somehow, as a method to imagine alternative realities and  mirror one’s own reality, without implicating a specific, individual biography. Still, I think it’s interesting that empathy plays such a big role in your work. Why is empathy so important?

SW: In graduate school I was inspired by Afrofuturist feminist Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. In these books a race called the Oankali go through the universe seeking organisms to trade genetic information with. Empathy plays a complex role in this story, from the perspective of the Oankali they are being empathic, they are saving humanity from the brink of destruction. However, humans lose their autonomy once integrated into the Oankali genetic order. The protagonist, Lilith, establishes a blended family out of her relationship with the Oankali and the books trace her personal and social conflicts with being a trader to her humanity as well as a desire to integrate into a new genetic and social order. The series has been described as an exploration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; Butler uses science fiction to consider forced familial relationships forged out of slavery that resulted in generations of African Americans having conflictual relationships with their integration into American culture.

CP: It seems significant that you haven’t written a novel (as yet) but instead make objects, installations, and performances, almost as secondary artifacts that viewers apprehend like archeologists…we don’t access the direct text-narrative, but instead connect the dots via artifacts that narrative produced.

SW: Octavia Butler’s fantastical and psychologically complicated myth fueled my desire to tell a story. As a visual artist, I knew it would not only be told through words but through a physicalization of objects, places, and by building new realities. So, for me, the objects and installations are very important, they are the material manifestation and physicalization of another place. They are the things that make the place real, that allow us to have access to that place.

ChimaTEK Beta Launch by Saya Woolfalk at Smack Mellon

ChimaTEK Beta Launch by Saya Woolfalk at Smack Mellon

CP: You are able to hit a lot of registers at once and seem comfortable with the seams between digital/material/nonhuman/human mediums; that’s part of what makes your work take on such a cohesive feeling of artifact. How did you develop that process? 

SW: I started playing with digital technology early on in my work. I made digital collages with costumed figures using early versions of Photoshop in the 90s. I was trying to use the newly available digital technologies to combine real people and places with new imagined possibilities.

CP: What about the difference between mannequins and live bodies? Does that difference matter?

SW: I gravitate towards the utopian potentials of digital space (post race, post gender, post human etc.), but understand that people live in real bodies that experience real consequences based on how they are gendered, sexed, raced and classed. As I currently explore things like augmented and virtual reality, I constantly bring us back to actual bodies in space, real dancers that have physical manifestations not just phantoms that exist in digital space.

CP: What would the Empathics say about the Anthropocene?

SW: The Empathics are initially ordinary humans and do their work in human centric systems. I imagine they would not be opposed to the current geological epoch being characterized as the Anthropocene. However, I don’t think they would want ChimaTEK or the work of the IoE to be limited by a human centric vision of possibility. I teach at Parsons the New School and a number of mu students last semester worked on projects that centralized birds or rocks as the consumers of the work. I think that the Empathics would be interested in this kind of exploration.

An Opening to Imagine the Present: A Conversation with Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian

August 24, 2016 · Print This Article


Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian agreed to answer a few questions about their latest collaborative and editorial endeavor, Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, a publishing project where contributing authors reflect upon the demands of Anthropocenic thinking and the many, nuanced intersections between humanity and ecology. In the following interview, Howe and Pandian, explore the tensions a word can contain. Howe is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at Rice University and co-hosts the “Cultures of Energy” podcast; Pandian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

Caroline Picard:  In the opening paragraph for Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, you describe the speed at which the word “Anthropocene” has spread and taken root, perhaps not only in academic discourse, but also popular imagination.

Cymene Howe: The channels that the Anthropocene now occupies are multiple and in many ways this has happened incredibly quickly in both academic and popular discourse. However, I also believe that the term, and especially its implications, has not gone fast, or far, enough. Academics (myself included) have spent time debating whether the term is adequate, or whether it is yet another instance of scholarly jargon that will soon evaporate and be forgotten. In the popular media however, the term has generally failed to take hold. Every day we read about climatological symptoms (wildfires in California or massive flooding in Louisiana being merely two that are front page news at the moment). In these conditions, it seems to me that the Anthropocene ought to be a more robust dimension in mainstream news cycles and for that matter, our social media flow. Beyond simply assuring that the term itself is in circulation, it is crucial that its representational work become part of wider and deeper conversations. I wonder how our political and economic discourses might change if we were really to become collectively and critically aware of the conditions that the Anthropocene represents: the human deformation of Earth.

CP: Is the speed at which the word is assimilating useful?

Anand Pandian: Speed is a strange thing, having so much to do, as a sensation, with where you are placed when you feel it; think, for example, of this Earth we are so worried about now, rocketing through the cosmos at the rate of 65,000 miles per hour. I am quite struck myself at the way in which thinkers and tinkerers of so many kinds—artists, poets, critics, writers, activists, academics—seem to have seized on this neologism as an emblem for this time. To me, this speaks to the workings of the imagination, the way that vectors of drift, trespass, and boundary-crossing can be unleashed by the force of the right kind of image. Let’s not forget this, that the Anthropocene is in fact an image, an arresting and persuasive image, an image of the Earth as captive to the machinations of one species conceived in singular terms. There has been some very interesting historical work on the imaginative impact of the Apollo mission photographs of the Earth as a whole in the 1970s: the relationship between the famous “blue marble” image, for example, and the burgeoning environmental movements of that decade. It strikes me that the Anthropocene may possibly become that kind of image for our time, a sharp refocusing of what is happening now, how we understand what is happening in the time that we call “now,” through a radical shift of perspective. Of course we know that there were serious and constitutive limits to what took place in the name of environmentalism in the 1970s, and hence all the more reason to be vigilant about what is being said and done in the name of the Anthropocene, and whether these things can be bent and turned a bit.

CH: If we agree that an awareness of the Anthropocene’s consequences ought to be more widely understood and confronted, we can also engage the speed of its discursive distribution as rhetoric and metaphor of the present. We live in an accelerated world. That means increased resource use, manufacture and trade as well as faster communication and travel, all of which have their externalities in regards to Earth’s climate system. Speed has become a habit. And in this sense it should not surprise us that terminology also moves rapidly, blazing along at light speed through media conduits. In a theoretical sense, speed is an essential condition of the Anthropocene as a concept. Many observers, as we know, cite the “Great Acceleration” following World War II—the quickened pace of goods-production, transportation and increased use of fossil fuels—as the crucial temporal phase that gave rise to what we now call the Anthropocene. In other words, if we take speed—its physics, mechanics and discursive thrust—and map it onto our bio- litho- aqua- and atmospheres, the quotient we get looks very much like what we have come to think of as the Anthropocene.

CP: How do we shore that up against the fact that the term hasn’t been officially approved? 

CH: The fact that the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not codified the Anthropocene as a geologic epoch is not, for me, a concern. Geology is a slow science, in the best of ways. Perhaps the careful consideration of a scientific community that operates in such slowly-unfolding timescales is a needed antidote to our accelerationist tendencies. Rushing to adopt the designation of Anthropocene might in fact jeopardize the methodical authority of our earth scientists. What is more meaningful for me than the consecration of the term is the fact that the person (Jan Zalasiewicz) who is leading the Special Working Group on the Anthropocene (that will submit its findings and conclusions to the Commission) is an inclusive thinker who values not only the physical sciences but the social ones as well; he and others are speaking across disciplinary divides to arrive at better understandings and better analytics. To state what might now be a truism, working in collaboration and pooling our collective knowledge is, really, the only way forward in this era, whatever its name.

CP: I find the question of agency really interesting and difficult with regard to the Anthropocene. One friend recently mentioned that he didn’t feel we were ready for the term to become a political vehicle for action, because we didn’t yet know what “Anthropocene” meant, or even how best to approach it—I think he was imagining that at this stage the term could easily be co-opted by a number of agendas that could just as easily argue, for instance, to reinforce national borders or relax them in the face environmental crisis. These discussions, and maybe also your title “for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen” attributes a significant and ambivalent amount of power to the word. What does the word Anthropocene do for you? Is it too weird to ask what it’s “nature” might be? 

CH: The worries expressed by your friend are likely warranted. Anthropocene is a world-engulfing concept, utterly comprehensive and drawing everything and being imaginable into its purview, both in terms of geographic scales and temporal duration. And it is a term and condition that has crisis at its fulcrum. This means that it is the sort of concept that risks becoming a vehicle for particularly corrosive restrictions, military measures, and all manner of abuses in its name. The feminist philosopher, Isabelle Stengers, has shared similar concerns and offers several reflections on these potentialities. In the epoch of the Anthropocene, and in the name of securing the climate (and all that thrives from it), she recognizes that “Man will be called on to mobilize” with all his/our [?] technoscientic resources at hand. She warns that a future with “unhappily necessary,” measures is, therefore, not far off. Within Stengers’s worries is a culprit, or better put, a causality, that fuels a draconian future: predatory capitalism. She calls this condition a “waking nightmare” where States have ceded control of the future to an oligarchy of the super-rich. What we might abstract from Stengers’s concerns is that while we must acknowledge that climate change is “real” (always a fraught term for a philosopher!), our political economic system is exacerbating that reality. Combining climate crisis with predatory capitalism offers up a toxic brew that can be used by the powers that be to exert controls, potentially unprecedented controls.

CP: How does someone, just an average person going about their lives, respond to that fear?

CH:  So, one question that we need to collectively pose is how to diminish the power of predatory capitalism; or on a more radical note: how to drive it to extinction in order to get on with the work of reverse engineering the ecocide it has produced.

AP: This is precisely where the “yet unseen” comes in. For, like any moment of intense movement and dynamism, the energy swirling now around the Anthropocene idea cannot be contained or domesticated by any one dominant understanding. I think it’s useful to think of the Anthropocene as an opening to imagine the present in contrary terms, and to engage creatively with this opening in lending force or momentum to more heterodox imaginations and movements. It fascinates me, for example, that we have seen such a proliferation of “alters” to the Anthropocene: Anthrobscene, Chthulucene, Eurocene, Misanthropocene, Plasticene, and so on, each tilting away from the epochal impetus to stress some other feature, to make some other feature more palpable as a way of redefining what exactly it is that we share now by way of ecological implicatedness. We have further, yet-to-be-published entries to our lexicon that will push these alternatives further, proposing Simulocene, Prometheocene, and many other such names. I think there’s something refreshing, and, dare I say hopeful in the evidence of such play. The Anthropocene is “good to think,” to borrow a phrase from the structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. With the idea of a lexicon, we are less interested in an authoritative redefinition of the term than in helping to propel its radicalization to the point where it could speak more effectively to the experience of a wider range of contemporary human societies and circumstances.

CP: How do you see anthropology’s role changing in the Anthropocene? What might be asked of the discipline that wasn’t asked before?

CH: We could say that anthropology has been doing the Anthropocene all along. The discipline is singular in its breadth of attention to humanity as humanity. This includes realizing all the idiosyncrasies of cultures and the historical roots that help produce them. Anthropology is also unique, I would argue, in its attention to the nexus of deep time and human life. The discipline’s project writ large and historically has been to trace humanity’s journey from pre-history to the present. An archaeological excavation, for example, is intended to unearth the stratigraphy of human presence. This includes postholes and mounds of shells, but it also includes how human footfall has transformed the earth’s crust, carving out paths or remaking its surface with tools and labor. In the branch of anthropology that attends to primates, evolution and biology we also find a careful rendering of human history as a biochemical and material process of growth (and retreat) that is embodied, literally and iteratively, through the human form itself.

Returning to your earlier question on the “nature” of the Anthropocene, anthropology also offers insights because the nature of the Anthropocene is our nature as well. The Anthropocene has been understood as human impact upon earth systems; but it is also important to recognize that the fossilized logics that have flowed from oil and coal—which has largely induced a planetary Anthropocene—has also utterly conditioned our humanity. That is, we cannot see our human being, in the present, as anything other than a human order that is deeply inscribed by oil and coal, and more broadly by each of the fossilized materials we have unearthed and burned. These fossils drove industrialization, they made modernity, if you will (even with all the provisos associated with the concept of “modernity.”) If we follow Timothy Mitchell’s work for example (2011) we find that coal—with its particular material form: relatively solid and mined in certain parts of the world—facilitated the emergence of 20th century liberal democracy. With the injection of oil, various elements of that mission were liquidated. The global economy now depends on oil and its material viscosity has proven sticky in various ways, from military interventions to a reshaping of geopolitics. Put more bluntly, fossil fuels are powerful shit. That is why it is important in this era, to face the fundamental recognition that our sources of energy, what now appear to be diabolical world-wreckers, are a part of us, especially that “us” that resides in the industrialized north. We are constitutionally implicated. As we think about how our energy decisions over the last couple of hundred years have come home to roost in injured eco- and atmospheres, I think it is critical that these forms of energy be taken for what they are: not just what we utilize, but what we are, politically, socially and one could argue, biochemically as well. It is not just that human imprudence with fossilized matter has transformed the Earth; it has altered humans as well.

AP: All of these crucial developments that Cymene describes help to underscore the unique and important place for anthropology in these conversations, for it is this discipline that has dedicated itself most doggedly to an investigation of the human, anthropos, as a problem and a horizon. Anthropology has always been a speculative enterprise, wagered on the chance to surpass some fixed picture of the human and its limits. Take, for example, this sentence from the conclusion to one of the founding works in the field, Bronislaw Malinowski’s 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific: “Though it may be given to us for a moment to enter into the soul of a savage and through his eyes to look at the outer world and feel ourselves what it must feel to him to be himself—yet our final goal is to enrich and deepen our own world’s vision, to understand our own nature and to make it finer, intellectually and artistically.” The language of radical foreignness and indeed savagery in this sentence may remind us of the discipline’s dark birth in the crucible of European colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And yet we may also see glimpse here an intellectual practice of taking the human, some canonical understanding of the human, beyond itself. It’s no accident that Malinowski uses the word “nature” here, I should also emphasize, for there has always been an ecological dimension to anthropological thinking and writing. The discipline has always been dedicated to excavating a thickness of local context in social, geographic, and physical terms, and to conveying this thickness as an essential part of the story through the genre of exploratory writing we’ve come to call ethnography. One of the questions that runs through our lexicon project, perhaps as a muted register but present here nonetheless, is whether and how these legacies of anthropology can be enlisted in the project to conceive this Anthropocene, for this is a discourse that tends to take the human as a given all too quickly and easily.

CP: At one point, Cymene, you write Geological time parallels with other scenics, like changed landscapes. But timely thinking brings us equally to another sensibility of the scene: pulling back the curtains on the human spectacle of the Anthropocene. Infact, if anthropos belongs anywhere in the scene, it must be to acknowledge that he has behaved with histrionic indulgences, like bouts of carbon binging. Next to geological, climatological, and seemingly impossible timescales, we have another kind of scene: tantrums and human melodrama. Tales of Armageddon, apocalypse, and emergency convey the panic that ensues in the mad dash to save human life (Colebrook 2012). The sky is falling, and we get to hear the countdown in terms of parts per million as the air around us continues to carbonize. This scene is like a staged event—waiting in the dark wondering if the knife will show up in the first act, so that we can know how it all will end.” How does the Anthropocene call for us to relearn how to tell time? What is the relationship between knowledge and imagination in that relearning process?

CH: I am glad that you brought up the conjunction of imagination and knowledge as integral to relearning how to tell time. We often think of the phrase “telling time” in a fairly instrumental way: you ask me the time of day and I respond with a quantitative account of the present (usually from a clock) through the coordinates of dawn and dusk. But if we allow ourselves to blur that modality, we can imagine different ways of “telling time.” The Anthropocene, for instance, is a telling time; it marks off a chronological field not by way of the planet’s movement around the sun (dawn and dusk) but by way of human accretions, deposits, and sediments. In a different sense, but one that is not without analogy to the first, we can say that the Anthropocene compels us to encounter time differently. This is primarily what I was playing with in the essay you mention. For humans to take responsibility (or blame) for a geologic epoch necessarily forces our thinking back into the rather unimaginably deep time of rock and magma and tectonic plates. This is difficult for us. (Imagine thinking ourselves geologically!) But more difficult still might be the skill of envisioning forward. At the level of individual subjectivity, we each have a history and so one might say that we can—as beings equipped with grammar as well as experience—think about and imagine the, and our own, past. But our particular future we have not yet lived; we can postulate outcomes, but this limited to a cognitive, and maybe affective, dimension of futurity. Casting our sights seven, twelve, seventy-two generations forward, as the Anthropocene asks us to do, is a true challenge. I don’t know of the algorithm that might help us achieve that sort of long-range imaginary, but I do hope we will find one.

Another take on our time, and its potential, might be to think in terms of a “Betacene.” The Anthropocene has us working with incongruous time scales: geological time encountering the immediacy of catastrophe. While the Holocene may have been the age in which we learned our letters and our agriculture, we are now faced with a genealogy of circulations and reciprocities between humans and other beings that demands, I believe, some experimental plasticity. As we know, the Anthropocene may be more or less “new” depending on how one measures it; but whatever its age, it is an improvisational time for us and our Others. We must innovate new ways of being in, and with, the world. Taking a cue from digital technologies that capture their users’ encounter in what designers call the “beta” mode, I have wondered if we can think about this time as a Betacene. In the Beta phase, a collective re-making occurs, the “user experience” gets honed; bugs and viruses pop out and slippage happens. The Beta-phase is about finding out what goes wrong. The Betacene could be a time to reverse-engineer ourselves toward a less im-perfect humanity: a chance to displace Alpha and a way to rethink ourselves not as apex species but as open to revision. This might be our opportunity to create a plan “B.”

CP: I would love to talk a bit about your contribution, Anand. At one point your write, “plastic as a material has always yielded objects in the form of questions: what else could your life become in the company of this shiny new thing?” You also link to video essay, “Wine Dark Plastic Sea,” where you connect Homers Mediterranean Sea to the Chesapeake Bay. Despite the staggering statistics on the volume of plastic the human species use on a regular basis, you maintain a level of optimism, ending your video essay with an observation. “We still have the chance to learn with these things and their buried energies,” you say, “the most crucial lesson of all: what would it take to live profoundly otherwise?” Can you talk about that ending note?

AP: It’s a difficult note to hold, and I certainly find its tone and tenor wavering in my own wrestling with the subject. I’ve begun to do field research for a new book on this material, plastic, a substance at the heart of so many of the utopian aspirations of the twentieth century and yet, now, one of the most potent embodiments of contemporary ecological nightmare. I’ve been working a lot with artists and activists in various places who are grappling with the astonishing proliferation of plastic detritus on beaches around the globe, and are experimenting with various ways of calling attention to what this is doing to marine life and the health of the oceans. I had the chance to spend a couple of days this summer on the Greek island of Kefalonia, a stone’s throw from the island of Ithaca that is mentioned in this particular video essay of mine. I was there to get a sense of the work of an American artist, Pam Longobardi, who has been working on the island of Kefalonia for about a decade now, cleaning beaches of plastic waste and making sculptural installations from the plastic objects she finds. I learned how to “snorkel” for brightly colored bits of underwater plastic debris with Longobardi, a poignant departure from the piscine adventures we typically seek, and we spent an afternoon cleaning out bagloads of plastic detritus from a sea cave: nets, straws, bottle caps, fraying bits of an abandoned polyurethane foam mattress, but also curious and even mythological figures that we found in this mass of anthropogenic debris, like toy action heroes, toy fighter planes, and even one sage-like plastic creature with a flowing beard and a staff in hand. To see all this in person, to see a Shell oil bottle cap side by side with “real” seashells as we did one afternoon, can be harrowing and even paralyzing. But there is indeed hope in the kind of work that Longobardi and many other artists and activists are doing now in encouraging us to attend anew to materials and objects we would otherwise neglect, and aspirations that bring us back to the original sense of plastic as material capable of being molded and shaped. Plastic has always come with an attendant promise of plasticity, concerning the malleability not only of the material itself but also of those who live with it. And here, once again, I’m trying to think about whether this promise can be radicalized in a way that might allow for a more livable future, whether plastic and plasticity can be taken as openings to reflect upon the radical forms of change that this new awareness of the age seems to demand.

CP: One of the things that I love about your project is how on the one hand you are tackling a very large topic, one almost impossible to conceive fully, and yet at the same time you all suggest looking at it in very small parts or windows. Similarly, I feel like the texts that you include—despite being assembled under a massive heading of “Lexicon”—are manageable, short, and generous. Was that an editorial decision that you all began with?

AP: The whole process has been curious, and strangely invigorating. As we mention in the online introduction to the collection, the very genesis of the project was a certain kind of accident, an academic conference panel that looked like it might fall apart altogether when it turned out that half the panel could not be present for it, a circumstance that led us to put out an impromptu call for many more brief “pop-up” presentations instead. The energy in that room was frankly electrifying, and we decided to pursue the conversation further online, where once again we could work with a platform that allowed for further brief contributions to emerge organically from the circulation of the series among a widening readership. We have about thirty entries online now and the full collection, when published as a book in the near future, will have about twice as many. Working in this fashion has enabled us to let the momentum of the process lead the broadening and deepening of the Lexicon, rather than having all of this dictated with a very heavy hand by the two of us. Some of the most unique and engaging contributions—such as the redolent pair already up online, Shit and Flatulence—were essays that were floated to us as ideas by scholars who were excited by what they had already read online. We’re very happy to have a mix now of anthropologists, humanists, artists and other writers as contributors, with an interesting balance as well between senior scholars and students just pulling together their dissertation research. It’s become a space of collective speculation, which is how it should be, I think.

CH: Many, though certainly not all, authors in the collection are anthropologists who have been trained to focus on the intimate, local and ethnographic while also being conscious of meta-conditions and contexts that form human life in its close encounters. The local, however, cannot really be distinguished without its foil: the “global” or “universal.” So the question is how to limn these dimensions. Planetary changes are happening, every single one of them, from the reduction of the albedo effect in the Arctic (loss of ice-reflectivity) to deluges and heat spells that are increasingly “unprecedented.” These events are occurring somewhere, affecting some person, now. And now, again. One way to comprehend the particular punctuations of the Anthropocene is to magnify these intimacies of event, both theoretically and narratively. As we have been continuing to collect essays and artworks for the Lexicon, I have begun to see it as a pointillist project, little pinholes that light up the Anthropocene from the inside. This abides with an impulse to draw our readers tightly into a moment. Much of the time the Anthropocene augurs an affective sense of overwhelmed abjection or apathy. It behaves as a set of circumstances wherein individual humans feel disempowered against seemingly impossible odds. Climate change, like Timothy Morton has signaled with his idea of “hyperobjects,” is effectively, and in sum, beyond human comprehension, in its massive scale, generational effects and widely distributed impacts. That is a fair way of describing the Anthropocene to be sure. But even hyperobjects are made up of myriad acts and deferrals. Multiply them and you have the foundations of the Anthropocene. And we have been multiplying. The Lexicon is not an antidote to the magnitudes we are facing, but it is a way into possible other futures through careful and thoughtful reflection. Our hope is that each essay is rich individually, while also speaking in parallel to a whole vocabulary, in a lexicon, that is hopeful toward futures we might create.









Episode 307: Mark Bradford

July 19, 2011 · Print This Article

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This week: Duncan and Claudine talk with Mark Bradford!

Deeply influenced by his experience growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the titles of his works often allude to stereotypes and the dynamics of class, race, and gender-based economies that structure urban society in the United States, specifically those of Los Angeles where he lives and works.

An anthropologist of his own environment, Bradford describes himself as a “modern-day flaneur,” saying, “I like to walk through the city and find details and then abstract them and make them my own. I’m not speaking for a community or trying to make a sociopolitical point. At the end it’s my mapping. My subjectivity.”