‚Ein Bericht‘ of the Anthropocene Project at HKW, Berlin

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Two weeks ago I attended the Anthropozän Bericht, a series of events that marked the conclusion of the Anthropozän Projekt at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. The long weekend from the 16th to the 19th of October comprised an extensive programme of different activities, which together sought to emphasise that the traditional methods of knowledge production, defined by the dichotomy between natural sciences and humanities, has become obsolete. In his introduction to the weekend of talks, demonstrations and exhibitions, Bernd Scherer (director of the HKW) explained that one of its rationales behind it was to explore the Kafkaesque situation in which our ways of conceptualising the world is destroyed by changes of our own making. But while many of the activities over the weekend illuminated the multiple material interconnections on the Earth as well as the contingency of (scientific) knowledge about them, not even the comfortably funded Anthropocene Project could entirely break with the ingrained practices of siloed knowledge production and its entanglements with societal decision-making processes. Rather, the Anthropozän Bericht was torn between the established and the evolving ways of understanding the separation and separating the understandings of humans and nature. Indeed the activities part of the Bericht at times appeared to be separate events that were taking place in the same building only by coincidence. Having said that, the HKW provided a unique environment in which to begin to move the existing fault lines not just in the theory but also in the practice of knowledge production.

In what follows, I briefly outline some of the activities that took place during the Bericht, dichotomising them before showing where cross-fertilisation seemed promising. I focus mainly on the Matter Theatre as well as the meeting of the Anthropocene Working Group that accompanied it – thus leaving out the exhibitions ‘CSI Department for Natural Resources’, ‘Anthropocene Observatory: #4 Abyss of Time’ and ‘The Otolith Group: Medium Earth’, which will continue until the end of the year.

A Matter Theater
The first evening of the Bericht was dominated by different experiments under the headline of the Matter Theater which officially sought to bring together ways of knowing and doing. While the content of these different experiments was not always easily comprehensible, what united them was a negotiation of the boundaries and interactions between humans and the material world.

This was best illustrated in Elisabeth Pivonelli’s demonstration, which highlighted that the contemporary mind is crucially framed by the division between life and non-life, which at the same time is being questioned by the idea of the Anthropocene. By way of illustration, Pivonelli displayed the stylised habitat of a water turtle in a fish tank and confronted the audience with the questions: how many existences are in the fish tank, and how may we comprehend and relate to them? After outlining how both natural scientists and philosopher may conceptualise the different things contained in the fish tank (turtle, water, pebbles, plants, etc.) by their (in)ability to evolve and develop, Pivonelli showed that our experience of the difference between these objects is very much an embodied one. Her effective way of demonstrating this, was to prompt the audience’s reaction by throwing the different objects into a small fire lit next to the fish tank. Maybe unsurprisingly, the immanent enkindling of the turtle caused the most opposition.

Pivonelli at A Matter Theater © Sebastian Bolesch / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Pivonelli at A Matter Theater © Sebastian Bolesch / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

The Matter Theatre continued both on Friday afternoon and on Saturday evolving around interpretations of measuring and dividing material relations and such specific objects entangled in them as dust, rocks, seeds and catalysts. Moreover, the devices, or apparatuses through which the invisible and tacit is made visible was a focus here. It included examinations of wax slicing machines to depict the insight of the brain (Flora Lysen); of geometric models to conceptualise the relationship between micro-and macrocosms (Andrew Gregory); of open source hardware to measure soil quality (Etienne Turpin); and of different instruments and practices of experiencing heat (John Tresch & Natascha Sadr Haghighian). All together they showed that the different ways of measuring and representing our material relationships with the Earth are deeply embedded in social institutions and as such are ever evolving.

Anthropocene Working Group Forum
Contrasting the Matter Theater was the first ever meeting of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) which, in 2016, will recommend to the International Geological Union whether or not to adopt the Anthropocene as an official era within the international geological timescale.  This meeting was greatly anticipated not just by me (interested as I am in the role science plays in making commensurable knowledge claims about the global environment) but also by the organisers of the event. Bernd Scherer even argued that the meeting makes for a significant moment in the history of science not just because he saw the AWG as a major actor in the making of the Anthropocene but also because the meeting aimed to divert from the beaten paths of the workings of expert committees by convening a ‘socio- and science-political forum, bringing together not just scientific experts but also political stakeholders, media outlets, and an interested public’. ((http://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/2014/anthropozaenprojekt_ein_bericht/anthropocene_working_group_1/anthropocene_working_group_forum.php))

And indeed, the meeting brought members of the AWG (mainly trained in the wider field of geology) and social scientists into one room. While the former outlined such different evidence for the Anthropocene as radiometric isotopes of Plutonium, the movement of river sediment, or current infrastructures that will or have already merged into the Archaeosphere; the latter highlighted the importance of transformative governance at an international level as well as social context and political impact of scientific knowledge. If they were sitting in one room, however, this did not mean that they were talking and listening to each other. Although historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Jürgen Renn emphasised respectively that scientists must reflect upon their political role as well as the socio-epistemic contexts that underpin the facts they are producing, members of the AWG appeared hesitant linking these insights to their own work. The incommensurability of the different accounts provided and particularly the approach taken by the AWG became the more apparent in the context of the Q&A sessions during the meeting.

Importantly, the members of the AWG were quite aware of the political impact of their decision to adopt or not the Anthropocene as a geological epoch. ((Although this was not mentioned during the meeting, a lively academic debate has evolved about the political consequences of adopting an earlier or a later Anthropocene boundary. While placing the start of the Anthropocene in the mid-19th century or even the post-War period would emphasise the role of industrial capitalism in causing global environmental change; using an earlier boundary may imply that humans have always altered their environment profoundly.)) During the meeting, they argued that an affirmative decision will create an additional level of consciousness and foster political change because, as Colin Waters put it, the Anthropocene is ‘very very good way of quantifying the anthropogenic changes’ and thus of enabling comparison with previous environmental changes.  But the members of the AWG saw their role in this process to be rather strictly limited to converting anthropogenic changes ‘in the earth system into rocks’ and thus providing a ‘temporal framework to follow the Anthropocene around the wold’. Accordingly, Jan Zalasiewicz clearly outlined in his introduction a set of questions that the AWG should concern itself with:

  • Is the Anthropocene ‘real’ in the geological strata?
  • How can the Anthropocene be defined?
  • When does the Anthropocene start?
  • Should it be formalised?
  • Why does formalisation matter?

What the AWG does not want to concern itself with, as Zalasiewicz later emphasised, are normative judgments about the causes of the Anthropocene. Rather their approach, as several AWG members explicitly stated, is one of ‘pragmatism’ – that is to focus on the changes that can be most clearly seen in the rock strata and provide a framework that is, first and foremost, of use to geologists around the world. It is in this sense, that the AWG Forum provided a clear break with the Matter Theater, which accentuated that ways of perceiving matter (including rocks) are very much contextual – depending on the practices and devices applied to make the invisible visible.

Underpinning this idea of pragmatism in particular and the whole AWG Forum generally, was a conceptions of a linear understanding of science-policy action in which science speaks truth to power. In this vein, the AWG is to provide neutral evidence for the phenomenon of the Anthropocene and politicians are to act on it. Christian Schwägerl ((Christian Schwägerl is not a member of the AWG but of the board of the Anthropocene Project at HKW)), for example, considered it important that the work of the AWG remains to be about ‘hard stuff’ rather than its members becoming influenced by societal concerns with buzzwords. Moreover, when asked about the social and political implication of their research, members of the AWG reverted to the difficulties faced by politicians to incorporate scientific evidence into their decision-making processes.

Ways forward
This is not to say that there were no counter-narratives during the meeting. Not only the critical audience prompted some of the replies by AWG member upon which I am here reflecting but also Bernd Scherer and Jürgen Renn highlighted that a pragmatic approach, which ignores the contingency of scientific facts, is unsatisfactory.

hkw exchanges picture

Exchanges © Sera Cakal / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

What may have contributed to the difficulties of negotiating between these different accounts (even if it is not its principle cause), was the set-up of the meeting which first began with the scientific ‘cases’ for the human impact on the environment, to be followed, second, by explanations of their ‘consequences’ for societies. This division reinforced, rather than broke up some of the fault lines between science (read nature) and the rest of society. The HKW found a better format with the Exchanges on Saturday during which one member of the AWG discussed a common topic with a social scientist, humanities scholar or artist. The set-up of the Exchanges was such that two small spaces were created in the larger auditorium of the HKW where two pairs of discussant exchanges their opinions simultaneously. Since these exchanges were transmitted via headphones, the audience could change between the two exchanges – leaving the discussants themselves with a subliminal privacy that enabled them to negotiate their different views more freely.

These Exchanges did not, to be sure, amount to a radical break with some of the contentions evident during the AWG Forum but they seemed to provide a good forum to start collaboration between the different researchers. Rather than implying that the scientists generally and the members of the AWG in particular are incapable or unwilling to reflect upon their own practices, I want to suggest that the achievement of inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration requires an experimental investigation into effective formats that contribute to the ‘variety of boundary transgressions, in which the disciplinary and disciplining rules, trainings and subjectivities given by existing knowledge corpuses are put aside or superseded’. ((Barry, A., Born, G. & Weszkalnys, G. (2008) Logics of interdisciplinarity. Economy and Society 37 (1), p. 21)) The AWG has gone miles from an exclusive and closed circle of scientists by welcoming people like the lawyer Davor Vidas or the environmentalist Andrew Revkin into their ranks. Although there is still a long way to go in order to overcome traditional methods of knowledge production that build upon an outdated nature/society dichotomy , the HKW is already taking the next step with the upcoming Anthropocene Campus.

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