Part 2: Sighting a Geologic Turn at the 2011 Art + Environment Conference

By Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth

Our first sighting of a “geologic turn” at the 2011 Art + Environment Conference came during the opening night’s event.  The printed program posed the question: “How do we design for deep time?”  It’s a question we have addressed regularly during the past 21 months because of its potential to incite recognition that human actions and objects are now capable of affecting the planet, on a geologic scale, for deep time. 

Throughout the conference, the tongue-twisting word “Anthropocene” rolled off participants’ lips as if it were just another day of the week.  Anthropocene is a neologism coined to signify the need to declare that we are now living in a new geologic epoch.  If adopted by geologists, this new epoch, named after humans, would confirm as scientific fact that humans are now unleashing environmental-change-as-geologic-change for durations and with forces that are geologic in scale.

Other signs that some contemporary art works and practices are now pivoting on a geologic turn include:

  • Lateral Office’s (Mason White and Lola Sheppard) contribution to the Landscape Futures exhibition, curated by Geoff Manaugh. Their work, The Active Layer and Next North, responds to landscapes created by cycles of freezing and refreezing in previously solid Arctic permafrost. Their project asks “What new forms of architecture— indeed what new forms of life—could both mirror and respond to this dynamic landscape, one whose delicate rhythms have been thrown off-kilter by rapid climate change?”
  • Lateral Office’s inquiries into the relationship between landscape and geologic change are echoed down the hall of the Altered Landscapes exhibition curated by Ann M. Wolfe.  In Olaf Otto Becker’s photo, Point 660, tourists take photos of Greenland’s ice cap. The caption of the photo notes that while the tourists are taking the photos, the landscape, “is simultaneously melting beneath their feet.”
  • Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison have been producing system and ecology based work for 45 years.  Their presentation suggested that everyone, including artists, become generalists. Now is the time to develop hybrid practices because art, science, and regional planning can’t address or meet the planetary changes that humans face from their isolated silos.  The Nevada Museum of Art has commissioned the Harrisons to do a 50-year project: Sierra Nevada, An Adaptation.  The project will outlive them and is one of many that the collaboration is engaged in that “responds to the challenges of global change” by designing interconnected bio-geo systems on scales from mountains ranges to continents.
  • Edward Burtynsky showed large-format photos of mines, ship breaking yards, quarries, and factories.  He stated that he sensed no sign of such projects’ monumental rearrangements of the earth decreasing or slowing in pace.  Over images of Three Gorges Dam in China, he pointed out that the weight of water filling the dam caused the Earth to wobble. Over images of the tar sands of Alberta, he noted the tar is composed of primordial organisms millions of years old. Burtynsky described his photos as documentation of life before the end of oil. In this sense, one could understand his images as photos created for future audiences who might attempt to understand how we lived at this present time, before humans reached the end of finite geologic resources.
  • Bruce Sterling asked members of the Landscape Futures panel to comment on many people’s sense of nostalgia for a climate or a landscape that they associated with “home,” but that has recently changed.  In response, curator Geoff Manaugh referenced solastalgia, defined by some as: “emotional disquiet about negative changes in one’s environment." Sterling and the Landscape Futures panel implied that while we may be in the midst of adapting to an environment that is changing at an unprecedented rate, we should also realize that geo-bio environmental change is continuous, inevitable, and often monumental.
  • Bruce Sterling offered concluding remarks, and noted that we might soon realize that the Anthropocene actually connects back to the Pleistocene. In some ways, we’re still living in the Pleistocene. Since the last ice age, humans have been setting up conditions for today’s massive planetary change. His final words: “An event like this is like a long refreshing drink of reclaimed sewage water, and I’m glad to be alive in this space and time.”

smudge is a collaboration between Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Their current project meets sites and moments where the geologic and the human converge.
They creatively respond to the complex of forces we encounter:
the natural, built, historic, social, strategic and the imagined.

They are the co-authors of the Friends of the Pleistocene blog. Current projects include the recently released Geologic City: a Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York and they are co-editing a collection of essays entitled, Making a Geologic Turn (forthcoming).

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