The Anthropocene Project
By BEL JACOBS
In face of current environmental events, debate around whether or not mankind now exists in the Anthropocene - an epoch in which human are the single most defining force on the planet and introduced in 2000 by chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Jozef Crutzen- seems to akin to re-arranging shells on the beach before a tidal wave. From carbon dioxide emissions to rising sea levels, human impact is undeniable and, almost always, devastating.
There is no uncertainty about the moniker for the pointedly named Anthropocene Project. Documentary makers Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky have travelled the world, filming the effects that mankind has had on the planet to create a multi-media project that includes a lavish Steidl art book, a gut-wrenching documentary film, an educational programme and Burtynsky’s devastating high resolution murals.
Canadian-born Burtynsky has form in capturing the monumental on film. For over 35 years, he has documented sweeping views of nature drastically altered by human industry. His work occupies the conflicting realms of visual beauty and environmental destruction. “It’s important to me that my pictures are attractive,” Burtynsky told the British Journal of Photography. “But beneath the surface there’s always a bigger, deeper environmental issue.”
Terraforming of the earth through mining, urbanisation, industrialisation and agriculture; the proliferation of dams and the pollution of waterways; the acidification of oceans due to climate change; the pervasive presence of the so-called techno fossils, persistent human materials such as concrete, aluminium and, of course, plastic; unprecedented rates of deforestation and species extinction: the scars humans have left on earth will last long after we have gone.
On first glance at Burtynsky’s photographs - of the biggest terrestrial machines ever built in Germany, of the concrete seawalls in China that now cover 60 per cent of the mainland coast, and of psychedelic potash mines in Russia’s Ural Mountains, and more - the viewer sees shapes, patterns and colours; almost abstract configurations of light and colour. Only on closer viewing, when you see tiny towers, boats, evidence of the human machinations, that you understand that this is a document of destruction on an unprecedented scale.
The use of new techniques such as virtual and augmented reality are key to the work. “They call AR the empathy tool because it actually takes you to these places,” Baichwal told Canada Geographic. “It can be visceral in itself. In the film work, we tried to have this constant dialectic of scale and detail so the big picture that Ed is so good at, and then the little narratives that happens with that big picture that allow you to empathically connect to what is happening there.”
The whole is a demonstration of the role in creating new understanding. “We all believe that this is the important issue of our day. It’s actually a crisis but if you engage in the environmental rant, people turn off,” adds de Pencier. “But, if you open up a place for discourse and understanding through photographs, through things that are open to personal interpretation, hopefully that’s a more profound transformative experience.”
“Everyone’s experience is different,” he continues. “Our hope with this work we’re creating is that it invites people to engage with it in a subjective way is that everyone will go and think about the whole human project differently.” Baichwal adds: “That experiential knowledge is what leads to a shift in consciousness and that shift in consciousness is what leads to real profound change.”
The Anthropocene Project is on show at the National Gallery of Canada and Art Gallery of Ontario till 06 January. Follow #Anthropoceneproject for updates.