Potential Worlds

It is a beautiful and well-designed book. At the same time, it is a disturbing collection of essays and art exhibitions about the epoch we are currently living in. Potential Worlds stabilizes and keeps together a mixture of views and impressions from different art fields and schools of thought such as object-oriented ontology, eco-feminism, and STS. 

Edited by Suad Garayeva-Maleki, artistic director of YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Heike Munder, director of the Migros Museum for Contemporary Art in Zurich, this element is a catalog of two exhibitions, Potential Worlds 1: Planetary Memories (07.03.2020 – 31.05.2020), and Potential Worlds 2: Eco-Fictions (24.10.2020-09.05.2021).

Just by opening the book and navigating through its first pages, we get immersed into a logic of human non-human intervention and mutual contamination that later we will define as capitalocene. The document offers us a brief introduction to some exhibitions by displaying a selection of some pictures projecting them.

Then, the words come. The introductory essay situates us in a more concrete, although general context —in terms of planetary situation— of ecological disaster. That is, precisely, the frame —if we agree we need a frame— bounding the efforts behind the two exhibitions reproduced in this publication. 

The scenario of ecological disaster is shaped and described by linking a set of stories (the spread of COVID-19, the Australian bushfires that, among other things, killed billions of animals, and the creation of the first living robot in the University of Vermont programmed to accomplish a broad set of tasks including cleaning up radioactive waste, and microplastics from the oceans) with a double common thread: 

First, we have the exponential acceleration of “human interactions with the environment and other living species […] to never-before-seen levels, in both old and new.” (Gareya-Maleki & Munder, 2020: 22). Second, the unfinished result —a moving element like a process— of those human interactions, climate change. The authors propose to understand climate change as a hyperobject.   

Following Morton (2013), Hyperobjects “are not contained by time and space as regular objects. Instead, they permeated every element along their path and can spread indefinite distances.” (Gareya-Maleki & Munder, 2020: 22). The timeframe we are currently using for locating and understanding the practices and effects of human acceleration and hyper-connection with the rest of nature has been named anthropocene

The anthropocene, a problematic demarcation with a diffuse beginning —and still an uncertain ending— is perhaps the most common label for naming that floating period when humans turned into geological agents. A predominant characteristic of the anthropocene is its colonialist rationality “of violent displacement” (ibid: 23) not only against other humans but the rest of living and non-living elements too. 

Nevertheless, Gareya-Maleki and Munder highlight a terminological inconvenience regarding the usage of anthropocene based on “the misleading in [the] assumption that all humans have equally affected the geological changes leading to today’s climate crisis.”. For them, capitalocene should be a more accurate concept for naming our current global situation. Capitalism is the process behind the “violent history of colonization of Earth’s resources for purposes of extraction, exploitation, and monetary gain, all in the name of progress and growth.” 

Regarding this nominative controversy, there is a conversation between Gregg Mitman, Donna Haraway, and Anna Tsing as part of the 2019-2020 Sawyer Seminar “Interrogating the Plantationocene,” in the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Haraway and Tsing, moderated by Mitman, discussed on antropocene, capitalocene, and plantationcene. Tsing proposed three reasons why anthropocene, despite its possible issues, is still a valid and academically productive term for this epoch: 

  • “[Anthropocene is] the term that allows interdisciplinary conversation between natural scientists and humanists.
  • The term appeals to a false universal of homogeneous ‘Man,’ which was created with a white, Christian, heterosexual male person as the basis for the universal. […] That problematic legacy can help us focus on the uneven, unequal features of planetary environmental issues.
  • A third reason is my general philosophy that it’s better to try to add meanings to words rather than to subtract words.”
Louis Henderson All That Is Solid (2014). Potential Worlds 2: Eco-Fictions.

The problem with anthropocene that Haraway highlighted is that its power “has a very problematic quality. Then I’m also less generous than Anna about the potential of remembering the Enlightenment dimension of the “Anthropos” and of “Man” because I experience, in fact, among my colleagues across activist and scholarly worlds, a tendency to think that Anthropocene really does mean a species act. That the problem really is humanity, not ‘Man’ in the Enlightenment sense, but humanity in its evolutionary social history on this planet— its increase in numbers, its increase in demands. This strengthens the illusion that turning all that is Earth into a resource for humanity is inevitable, if tragic.”

However, and leaving aside —at least in this review— the discussion on how to label in time the planetary situation happening right now, there is not any doubt that regardless its name, it is chaotic, violent, and destructive. But Gareya-Maleki and Munder also believe we still have the chance of learning how to deal with that situation and taking action on “inventing new ways of survival.” (23). 

And it is here where art appears as a possible path to find those other ways of being in relation to the environment, as a tool for imaging and speculating ecologies. Right now this review splits into two other parts. The first one will take care of Ursula Biemann’s exhibition, Deep Weather, and Reena Mishka Henner’s Fields and Feedlots. Those two works were part of Potential Worlds 1: Planetary Memories.