critical writing, Mallee, water

towards a critical climate aesthetics

May 11, 2019

With climate change we are looking at what the French historian Ferdinand Braudel  called the  longue duree. The changes associated with the Anthropocence include climate change, erosion, global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic ‘dead zones’; rapid changes in the biosphere both on land and in the sea, as a result of habitat loss, predation, explosion of domestic animal populations and species invasions. These  will persist for millennia or longer, and are altering the trajectory of the Earth System, some with permanent effect.

Associated with climate change is the process of mass extinction. A UN overview of the state of the world’s nature is expected to provide evidence that the world is facing a sixth wave of extinction. Unlike the past five, this one is human-driven primarily caused by loss of forest or woodland habitat.

Rangelands, Lower Darling, NSW

The devastation that characterizes the Anthropocene is not simply the result of activities undertaken by the species Homo sapiens; instead, these effects derive from a particular nexus of epistemic, technological, social, and political forces of the fossil-fuel economy of contemporary capitalism. This sees people, animals and the earth as resources to be exploited, and it places profit above all else to such an extent that capitalism may come to transform itself by collapsing from the effects of ecological devastation. 

I don’t have the resources to make the world my subject matter and to photograph the global characteristics of the Anthropocene like the global industrial landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky–eg., photograph the  concrete seawalls in China, the terrestrial machines in Germany, the psychedelic potash mines in Russia’s Ural Mountains, the devastated Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the lithium evaporation ponds in the Atacama desert. This lack of the resources doesn’t matter as I only need to concentrate on my own region in a low key and minimal way for my contribution to the Unknown Futures section of the upcoming Mallee Routes exhibition.

Murraylands, South Australia

In his ‘ The Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia’ Dr. Joelle Gergis argues that the scientific evidence shows that Australia is now starting to move out of the realm of natural variability that we’ve  seen in the recent geologic past. The Australasian region is warming and our fingerprints are all over that signal. All of our weather and climate is now occurring on the background of a warming planet. The challenge is to transform our society into a sustainable one  on the planet,  rather than a destructive one that is currently making our planet quite unsafe. 

We are living in the damaged world of a neo-liberal market model of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin where the Anthropocene is happening now, and it is determining the future. The farmers in the lower Darling are protesting against the lack of water for their land that is caused by the extensive upstream irrigation of agribusinesses growing cash crops for export. The minimal leftover water with its changing biological and chemical composition had made vast surfaces of farmland around the lower Darling River region barren. The state’s support for the exorbitant water demands of large agro-industries coinciding with rising temperatures is at the expense of those living in the region of the lower Darling River. This suggests a coming barbarism in which the state’s rationality abandons the poor amongst the ruins of their farmlands.

Great Darling Anabranch

The growing sense of urgency surrounding climate change  has generated a dialogue among artists, critics and theorisers  regarding the role of art in this contemporary crisis. What does it mean for art to confront the Anthropocene? The Cape Farewell project,   the Canary Project,  and the Anthropocene Project are  well known answers, whilst  The Art + Climate Change festival  is an Australian example.  

The issue is trying to understand how to handle the slow deep time time processes of the Anthropocene now shaping our daily lie in our respective languages including photography; languages that can unhinge our conventional patterns of thought—it’s the drought and rain will fix everything—– rather than affirm them. Affirmation takes place within the images circulating in the infosphere, where the mass media functions to shape public opinion. In the infosphere we usually view the drought through aerial images (often made with a drone), with their visual convention of an unstable, free-falling, and floating bird’s-eye view.

So what would a critical Anthropocene photography look like? For me, at the stage of producing work for the Unknown Futures section of the upcoming Mallee Routes exhibition it is not the option of the aerial photography of Vincent Laforet  or Edward Burtynsky; rather it is one that returns to the earth that we do not know very well, but whose new ecology we have to learn. A photography that plants its feet squarely back on Earth, is aware of the Anthropocene’s intermingling of past, present, and future conditions, and goes beyond a rebranding of environmental photography.

The latter is premised on limiting the industrial human footprint on the planet to preserve wilderness–a nature to be “protected” from the damage caused by humans. We now think in terms of the earth system, and as each year passes, we find ourselves increasingly entangled in the feedback loops of the dynamic earth system in which nature is capable of threatening our modes of thinking and of living for good.

A critical Anthropocene photography does not simply make ecological information and scale available to the eye, but, more forcefully, it consolidates a cultural orientation by making an intervention that speaks and presents the situation a little differently to create a short freezing of time; or a space to suggest a way of seeing that would enable humans to dwell on the earth poetically.

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