In addressing the Anthropocene, how artists are moving beyond cinematic disaster porn to visualize our current state of emergency
A freshwater stream bubbles over scattered family photos, while thick smog billows out from a landscape of factory pipes. The next screen over, the camera twinkles over a lush Polynesian rainforest before panning out across a bruise-purple Alaskan landscape. Just as the far right screen flicks to a scene of frazzled merriment – an auctioneer gestures toward a map of sectioned-off Alaska, while his audience of oil tycoons erupts in thunderous applause – real thunder rolls across an apocalyptic storm on the far left. Unflinching in the middle of it all is a sullen woman cloaked in a brilliantly white jacket that registers somewhere between a lab coat and hazmat suit. This uncanny figure reappears as a silent witness to the planetary-scale fable of life and death throughout John Akomfrah’s epic hour-long Purple (2017): a six-screen installation currently spanning the Barbican’s Curve gallery, London.
A notoriously tough space to work with, the Curve is perhaps the perfect environment for a film that aspires to visualize what is totalizing yet for the most part invisible: the Anthropocene, our current era which marks humanity’s deep impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. The ways in which we talk about the Anthropocene are often scaled down in public discourse to isolated elements such as rising temperatures and tides, disappearing flora and fauna, or the increasing severity and unpredictability of so-called ‘natural’ disasters; Akomfrah’s near feature-length, multi-screen manoeuvre is, by contrast, an attempt to paint the whole terrifying picture: not just the damage that human activity has wreaked upon the planet, but also upon ourselves: from the psychological trauma of warfare and factory labour to the irreversible contamination of our food and water supplies.
Devised in six movements, this film is the second installment of a planned quartet that address the aesthetics and politics of our ecological crisis (following on from 2015’s Vertigo Sea, first shown at that year’s Venice Biennale and currently on show at Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery). Purple operates confidently within this larger conceptual framework. Its layered use of montage, temporal leaps, and subtly choreographed narrative give the work a mysterious inner logic: an appropriate register in which to tackle something as slippery as the Anthropocene. Aside for a few moments where the work’s mournful undertones break through the surface and begin to feel slightly sententious, Purple stays airborne, equal parts moving and sublime.
If the Anthropocene is no less than the beginning of the end of the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life, and neoliberal systems of (dis)order have done so much to accelerate our current state of emergency while disguising its real impact, how does one make art about a condition that is so structurally resistant to full-on exposure? At the cinema, the feverish proliferation of various states of emergency across our screens are relayed through narratives which acknowledge inevitable destruction, but posit a next step: consider the escapism of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) in which the solution to ecological disaster is to escape the planet altogether. Irmgard Emmelhainz writes in her 2015 e-flux essay ‘Conditions of Visuality Under the Anthropocene’: ‘films about the end of the world [in the last decade] have been characterized by a doomsday narrative that may end with moral redemption’ citing World War Z (2013) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), where the capacity for action is always propelled by the hope for new life.
Akomfrah’s Purple is not immune from this tendency. As a narrative-based, multi-screen installation, it hinges between a mournful account of our profound capacities for destruction and a modest testament to our capacities for tenderness, perseverance and pursuit of excellence. Amid damning scenes of nuclear warfare and factory farms that expose our hubris and speciesism, ballet dancers contort their bodies in synchronized swanlike grace. Suddenly the camera plunges deep underwater, suspending itself among a nebula of glowing jellyfish that borders on the cosmological. While there is no epic finale to the end of Akomfrah’s narrative, no spoken guarantee of absolution, Purple seems to give off a small glimmer of a future despite everything.
Recent projects by the Chinese artist Cheng Ran and American Rachel Rose, as well the older work Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006) by Simon Starling, address the stakes of the Anthropocene in a less explicit fashion. These works are less punitive and increasingly abstracted. Both Cheng’s New Museum exhibition in New York, ‘Diary of a Madman’ (2016), and Rose’s Everything and More (2015) adopt a post-human perspective where the work moves beyond the fraught relationship between humankind and nature to dig into the complex relationships we have with ourselves and each other. What’s initially familiar becomes estranged as man-made environments are unpicked with the same fascination and scrutiny that Akomfrah dedicates to his wild, sprawling landscapes.
‘Diary of a Madman’ documents Cheng’s initial encounter with New York City as the culmination of a three-month residency at the New Museum in 2016 (the artist’s first visit to the United States). The 15 video works were installed at varying heights in the gallery, forcing viewers into a series of contorted positions in order to view images from the insecure outskirts of the city: dangling off the edges of piers and bay areas, across rattling bridges between Queens and Manhattan, and abandoned psychiatric hospitals on Long Island. Cheng’s feelings as an outsider to New York and American culture at large play out upon its physical edge, where the experience of urban and cultural alienation are described via landscapes of post-industrial abandon. While the simultaneous Mandarin and English translations provide a literal underscore to Cheng’s experience of foreignness, it is in pieces like The Bridge (2016), where a young black man traverses Hell Gate Bridge while repeating, ‘I do not turn around’, that we are reminded that the maddening forces of Otherness and isolation are as much a homegrown effect of systemic racism than that which is lost in translation.
Rose, on the other hand, takes us to what looks like outer space to shake us loose from ourselves. The glittering cosmological space-scapes that fill Everything and More are merely cleaning supplies reacting to different toxic compounds. Their unrecognizability makes it sublime, and the camera extends the fiction by offering us a rare glimpse into the alter-reality of astronaut training. Retired NASA astronaut David Wolf articulates the sensation of disembodiment affected by space travel, while Rose’s roving camera floats through the room to follow astronauts into a zero-gravity simulation tank, with the film’s audio intermittently filtered through a pool of water. Everything and More seems to draw a parallel phenomenology between our amphibious origins and the future of space travel. As in Purple, Rose pushes a non-linear understanding of time in relation to the Anthropocene, undoing internalized notions of progress and encouraging a return to the beginning in carving out a post-human future.
Meanwhile, Simon Starling’s Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006) is the end result of a four-hour voyage across Scotland’s Loch Long, once the watery birthplace of the steamship and currently home to warheads belonging to the UK’s nuclear weapons system, Trident. The project critiques the death of industry as it feeds back into the classical mythology of Ouroboros, or the serpent that eats its own tail. An obsolete projector clatters along to a painfully slow presentation of 38 slides that capture the ship’s slow death, its passengers picking apart the vessel piece by piece to fuel its voyage. By aligning the death of humanity with the birth of Western industry – running closer to German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of the ‘Eurocene’, which laminates the Industrial Revolution onto the Anthropocene – Starling prompts us to contemplate Western culpability for the end of days.
In search of its cinematic equal, the Anthropocene could well be commensurate to a nauseating assemblage of telecommunication infrastructures sprawling beneath an ever-rising, garbage-filled ocean while the agitated chatter of planetary-scale computation and the seductive distractions of big data drown out all the world’s warning signs. Works such as Starling’s that address the Anthropocene without leaning back on the clichéd shock imagery of disaster porn, planetary crisis, and dystopian tech-filled landscapes can begin to articulate, in quieter, more nuanced, and ultimately more effective modes, the racial politics, colonial histories, capitalist superstructures and Western notions of progress that underpin its entire existence.
John Akomfrah’s Purple is on view at the Barbican’s Curve gallery, London, until 7 January 2018.