Anthropocene Campus at HKW Berlin

Anthropocene Campus at HKW Berlin

The idea that humans are the driving force in today’s Earth system, leaving a distinct layer of rock in the Earth’s crust, is the essence of the Anthropocene hypothesis. While the material history of such a development remains contested not just within the stratigraphic community that concerns itself with the definition of a universal geological timescale, it is without doubt that the intellectual history of the Anthropocene is advancing at an accelerating pace. One manifestation of this is the increasing interest of established research and cultural institutions in the development of the Anthropocene as a concept. One of the largest investigations in this regard has been the Anthropocene Project at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin, which recently came to a close with the Anthropocene Campus. The aim of the Campus was to put into practice an experimental curricular programme that responded to global transformations by producing knoweldge beyond institutionalised disciplines, educational formats and teaching content. With such a challenging task ahead, ambitions were running high that the Campus would not only set an example for a reform of university curricula (Jürgen Renn) but also shape the Anthropocene concept itself (Bernd Scherer) and maybe even bringing about a ‘Weltanschauung Moment’ in which we reconceptualise our perspectives of the world (Sverker Sörlin).

As one of over 100 participants, I took part in that 9-day exercise that was organised into different seminars covering issues from Slow Media, over Modelling Wicked Problems, to Anthropogenic Landscapes. Below I briefly reflect on my experience of the Campus and particularly the issues of inter-disciplinarity and politics in the Anthropocene, which seemed to be central in many discussions that I participated in.


The question of inter-disciplinary collaboration was not just one that the diverse group of participants had to grapple with but it also affected the instructors of the seminars which had formed inter-disciplinary triads to prepare the latter. Given the Anthropocene’s origin in the natural sciences, the Campus organisers (which consisted mainly of HKW and MPWIG staff) took an unusual approach in that many of the concepts and ideas underpinning the Campus derived from the social sciences and arts & humanities. This was reflected in the kind of participants that the Campus attracted, almost half of which had received formal training in the arts or in design and research architecture. Moreover, the prominence of approaches to the Anthropocene from the humanities created some unease among participants with a background in natural science. Indeed, such a feeling extended to the instructors as well. For example, Wolfgang Lucht, a Co-Chair of ‘Earth System Analysis’ at the renowned Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Studies with an appreciation for artistic representations of the Earth System, admitted that as ‘just a bloody scientists’ he was not used to the meta-theoretical approach that many participants in the Imaging Seminar took. A challenging working relationship was also evident amongst the triad of instructors organising the Anthropogenic Landscape Seminar. For, as they made clear in their introduction, there was actually not very much they agreed in terms of defining their topic area.


me at work © Sera Cakal

In many ways, these experiences are exemplary for the way in which instructors and participants alike, regardless of their disciplinary backgrounds, were challenged to push their own knowledge boundaries during the Campus. Indeed, the idea from which the planning of the Campus initially started, was to prompt academics to reflect on their own knowledge and engage in inter-disciplinary collaborations to create new knowledge. As such, the exigent discussion amongst and between participants and instructors were very much part of negotiating what kind of procedures can be used for validating truth claims. It was only through such processes of establishing a common epistemological ground that dialogue between everybody involved in the Campus was enabled – that knowledge could be transferred and combined. The result of this, after nine days of intense discussions, was a common language and shared understanding of global environmental change. In this sense, the Campus was indeed a great success even if the longevity of such dialogues still needs to be established.

The Seminar Disciplinarities organised by Bronislaw Szerszynski and Mark Lawrence, in particular, tried to push the idea of (inter-)disciplinarity as far as possible. In his introductory lecture, Szerszynski attended to differences in ‘what it is to know’ by focussing on the Yanomami people of the Amazon who have their own account of the Anthropocene, in which they argue that metals and oil should be kept underground because they produce harmful fumes. According to the Yanomami, the unearthing of these materials by white people, however, has produced an invasion of evil cannibal spirits. With this example, Bronislaw Szerszynski highlighted, how Western and indigenous ways of knowing are embedded in different forms of disciplines. Although the case of the Yanomami was not taken up again during the seminar, it set the stage for a reflection of one’s own disciplinary history and for ‘unlearning’ personally established ways of knowing. What followed, was a series of gamely interactions that aimed at pushing participants towards the edge of their disciplinary comfort zones. They included a ‘discipline slam’ and different role plays such as a communication enhancement exercise in which one was to argue in agreement with or opposition to a statement about the necessary knowledge needed to solve an issues of concern that another participant had raised. Furthermore, one emphasis during the seminar lay in making knowledge of the Anthropocene, particularly (inter-)disciplinary knowledge, visible. Accordingly, different break-out groups were asked to create storyboards addressing simultaneously the issues of Anthropocene, climate engineering and one principle of interdisciplinary collaboration such as ‘including everybody’s perspective’. Although many participants highlighted that they had had quite different expectations of the seminar, they also expressed the feeling that the interactions had opened their view towards non-intellectual perspectives of inter-disciplinarity.


Other participants at work © Sera Cakal


Another good example of productive dialogue between instructors, was the Filtering Seminar in which economist Amita Baviskar, earth system scientist Will Steffen and environmental historian Marco Armiero aimed to approach the Anthropocene as a selective framing shaped by the politics of knowledge and the hierarchies that inform the constitution of expertise. Compared to the Disciplinarities seminar, this one had a more conventional set-up in which small group discussions followed initial presentations by Marco Armiero and Amita Baviskar about the politics of Hurricane Katrina and the construction of the Indian Sardar Sarovar dam respectively. Importantly, these two case studies provided examples of how power and privilege continue to underpin the roles of social groups in environmental conflicts. But they also meant that the dominant filter within the seminar was not the ‘Anthropocene’ itself but rather ‘social location’ which highlighted what knowledge systems dominate particular environmental conflicts and who is excluded from being heard as a result of it. In both cases, the technical knowledge of engineers trumped that of Local residents or indigenous communities. Accounts of local livelihood and cultural practices were subsequently annihilated by the logics of rational project planning or ignored altogether.


Marco Armiero during his presentation © Sera Cakal

The seminar then continued in smaller groups that chose different case studies such as sea level rise in small island states, the extreme retreat of Lake Chad, or the effects of plastics on infertility. It should be highlighted that all of them were very successful indeed in using different social locations as filters through which to examine the politics of the case study at hand. Nevertheless, the stimulating discussions during the seminar about these case studies, meant that a critical examination of the Anthropocene itself was side-lined.

In some ways, the lack of focus on the Anthropocene as concept rather than a background condition was a general feature of the different seminars in which I participated during the Campus (Imaging, Disciplinarities, Filtering). Judging from the Resumee sessions in which the nine parallel running seminars were summarised for nonparticipants, only the Technosphere/ Co-evolution seminar sought to deconstruct the Anthropocene as a particular representation of the world. This is not to say, however, that (what I would consider to be) the reasons for such a trajectory were not frequently highlighted during the cross-seminar discussions including, especially, the Resumee sessions during which participants inquired about the limited inclusiveness and implicit power structures of the Campus. Particularly, the lack of representatives from the Global South and indigenous knowledge communities was raised as an issue here. Responding to such questions, Katrin Klingan, curator of the Campus, pointed towards the miniscule number of applications from those communities. What she thus implicitly referred to were the systemic conditions of the global political economy (of knowledge) that prevent people outside of established institutions in the Global North to participate in events like the Campus. While going against such forces is indeed an impossible ambition even for resourceful actors like the HKW and MPWIG, one way of achieving greater representativeness may have been to include more instructors from the Global South. After all, a reasonable share of the present participants had affiliations with an instructors of the Campus.

So what?

While these aspects are surely important factors, I would argue the issue goes beyond the division (or dichotomisation) of knowledge from the Global North and South. Rather, questioning the Anthropocene as an appropriate representation of reality would have meant to question established notions of expertise, which the Campus was, for various structural but nonetheless valid reasons, not equipped to do. The approach of the Campus organisers was to re-present, that is to present differently, issues of global environmental change and thus shape the academic discourse. The Campus, to be sure provided an excellent start for such an endeavour, extending, after all, the discussion from the relatively narrow field of geologists to a multitude of other fields of academic work. But to really ‘work through’ (Bern Scherer) the material and intellectual challenges that the Anthropocene poses, it is arguably necessary to go beyond the insights that credentialed academics can provide. The Campus was very much about a cross-fertilisation between a greatly diverse group of experts but it was not about transdisciplinarity or a breaking with the notion of expertise. Engaging the public in the Curriculum, it seems, would only be the second step.

To be sure, it would be utterly inappropriate to suggest that the Anthropocene Project, and its organising institutions the HKW and MPWIG, have ignored the issue of public participation. Talking, as I did in the beginning, about the research and cultural institutions that have developed an interest in the Anthropocene, the HKW and MPWIG are clearly at the forefront of (re-)making knowledge about the Anthropocene more accessible to a wider public. The open access website and publication that will result from the Campus are prime examples of this. Similarly, many discussions from the Campus were recorded and are already available online.

But involving a wider community of knowledge holders in the production, rather than the consumption, of expertise about the Anthropocene remains a step to be taken. In this regard, a reflection on the agency of knowledge producers, including our individual roles as Campus participants and instructors, is paramount. This involves, as Maya Kovskaya aptly highlighted in her summary of the Technosphere/Co-evolution seminar, to learn how to think our own knoweldge practices rather than seeing the categories through which we make sense of the world, like the Anthropcoene, as something outside of ourselves.



Jürgen Renn presenting ‘Grain, Vapor, Ray’ – an excellent anthology on the intellectual history of the Anthropocene © Sera Cakal

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