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Producing the Anthropocene, Producing the Future/Water Futures

Editor’s note: Today we have the final installment of our “Anthropocene Melbourne Campus” series, featuring two related posts by Lauren Rickards and Ruth Morgan. Producing the Anthropocene, Producing the Future Lauren Rickards, RMIT University Images of the future are increasingly cast on the widescreen of the Anthropocene: the planetary-scale shift from the comfy Holocene to an unknown and threatening new ‘operating space’ for the Earth. How humanity inadvertently shifted the whole planet so radically and in such a self-damaging manner is now the subject of intense debate. Different narratives of blame locate relative responsibility with various sectors, activities and groups. Common candidates include farming, colonial plantations, industrialization and urbanisation, and the post-war acceleration in consumption and pollution. From a material perspective, there is a strong geological rationale for naming each as a major source of planetary-scale environmental and social impacts and “terraforming.” Indeed, this is how these various proposed starting dates for the Anthropocene have been identified: through the pursuit of widespread and sharp enough changes in the geological record to count as what geologists call a “Golden Spike”, the prerequisite for declaring  a new epoch. Yet this search for the physical origins of the Anthropocene in the historical record needs to extend far past physical signals and their proximate causes to the visions, goals and assumptions underlying the activities involved, including what Ian Hacking would call styles of reasoning. Reading the Anthropocene in this light reveals many limitations within the outlooks, ideas and values that informed the activities mentioned above, including an often willful ignorance of the immediate impacts on people, nonhumans and the abiotic environment, as well as the “unknown unknown” of the long-term, accumulative changes being wrought. (read more...)

Out-of-Body Workspaces: Andy Serkis and Motion Capture Technologies

Over the last two decades, the entertainment industry has experienced a turn to what Lucy Suchman termed virtualization technologies in film and videogame production (Suchman 2016). In addition, production studies scholars have described authorship as linked to control and ownership, sharpening distinctions between “creative” and “technical” work, a divide with significant economic repercussions (Caldwell 2008).  These ideas are useful in understanding film studio workspaces, where visual effects (VFX) workers and actors collaborate in creating believable virtual characters, using three-dimensional (3D) modeling software and motion-capture (mo-cap) systems to capture the attributes and movements of human bodies and transfer them to digital models.  Once captured, digital performances become data, to be manipulated and merged seamlessly with those of live actors and environments in the final film. The introduction of virtualization technologies and computer graphics tools have surfaced tensions over creative control, authorship, and labor. British actor Andy Serkis has been a high-profile apologist for the human actor’s central role in bringing virtual characters to life for film.  Serkis, who Rolling Stone called “the king of post-human acting,” is known for using motion capture (mo-cap) to breathe life into digitally-created, non-human characters. His notable performances include the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), the ape Cesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), as well as  Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and work on several characters in the 2018 Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which he also directed. While Serkis’ performances have made him highly visible to audiences, digital labor historians have begun documenting the often-invisible film workers creating 3D models and VFX (Curtin and Sanson, 2017). The tensions between mo-cap performers and VFX workers reveal the contours of an emerging hybrid workspace that combines actors’ physical bodies and movements with VFX workers’ manipulations of digital geometry and data. (read more...)

Dramatising the Future

This is the third in a series of posts by scholars who attended the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, an event hosted in September by Deakin University as part of the larger Anthropocene Curriculum project. Over the four days of the Campus, 110 participants from 49 universities (plus several art institutions and museums) attended keynotes, art exhibits, fieldtrips, and workshops based around the theme of ‘the elemental’. Earlier this year, at the Emerging Writers Festival panel on ‘Writing the Anthropocene’, I was asked if I thought that, in imagining a future world for my 2016 novel The Island Will Sink, I also had an ethical responsibility to ‘get it right’. The question was asked by a writer who also worked as a sustainability officer in community organisations. It led to more uncomfortable questions: As a writer of fiction, is it a problem to use the predicted extinctions and environmental catastrophes of the not too distant future to produce (amongst other things) stakes in a literary production? (read more...)

Towards a Queer Art of Surveillance in South Korea

Editor’s Note: This post was co-written with Timothy Gitzen. When is a face not a face? With the launch of the iPhone X that boasts facial recognition capabilities, the individual markers of one’s face tie one’s identity to the security of their phone. Yet it also makes the face complicit in forms of self-surveillance, as it requires definitive facial proof to access one’s phone. It produces the face as evidence of one’s identity that supposedly cannot be forged. In this instance, one continuously uses one’s phone to surveil one’s own identity—with the face becoming a safeguard against potential security breaches. Small-scale, yes, but surveillance need not always be connected to sprawling security apparatuses and institutions. So we ask again: when is a face not a face? When it is used to distinguish a body as a body rather than as an individuated person? With this post, we seek to explore possible answers to this question in the context of South Korea, by focusing on the role of self-surveillance in the politics of queer student activist organizations. (read more...)

Description/Classification/Threshold: Experiments with Renewable Energy Taxonomy

This is not renewable energy:   Nor is this some clever, Magritte-esque meta-commentary on how it is impossible represent or think about renewable energy separate from the technologies that harness it. No, it is simply an issue of taxonomy: hydropower is only counted as “renewable” some of the time. This is confusing, because if the term “renewable” has any meaning, after all, it is first and foremost a description of a process, one that specifically refers to the fact that the natural resource from which said energy is produced either does not significantly deplete upon use to begin with, or can be easily replenished within a human time scale. Hydropower, harnessed through the most abundant substance on our “blue planet”, seems to easily fit the description, which makes the exception worth exploring. (read more...)

Critiquing Big Data in China and Beyond

“I do think that the Internet truly makes us feel the world can become a smaller place,” an interlocutor, whom I will call Bo, told me in his parents’ home in Shijiazhuang, a city in China’s Hebei Province. It was late 2014, and he was studying to become a filmmaker in Beijing. During our conversation, he told me about discovering Google Earth when he was younger, recalling how, suddenly, he could “see any place in the world” from the comfort of his home. He could zoom in to explore a mountain village in Iceland, a house, and even a village dog, feeling that, without Google Earth, he would never have been able to visit such faraway places. The experience might have been virtual (xuni), he mused, but it had also been real (zhenshi). His account expressed a kind of enthusiasm for the digital that I often encountered during my ethnographic fieldwork on digital opportunity in China. However, his story was made especially compelling by the oppressive smog plaguing the city outside. While neighboring buildings disappeared in a toxic fog, he expressed his excitement about “seeing” a digitally mediated “Google Earth.” (read more...)

Voided Spaces: Architectural indices of ravines in Guatemala City

Deep, canyon-like ravines fracture forty-two percent of Guatemala City. Covered in thick, wet, and dense foliage, these ravines are contentious ecological forms for Guatemala City residents, who have often described ravines as physical borders that disconnect their city; opportunities for landfills that are out of sight, out of mind; informal housing for gangs, violence, and the city’s poorest[1]; as well as precarious locations where damage from earthquakes, floods, and landslides is felt the most. However, in 2006, the city municipality reclassified these ravines as an “ecological belt” (Cinturón Ecológico Metropolitano), identifying them as sites in need of ecological and developmental attention. Architects in particular have taken special interest in these ravines, arguing for sustainably-minded designs that would develop and connect ravines to the broader city landscape. Ravines, they argue, are underutilized and contaminated spaces that work against, rather than with, the built environment. Interested in the classification and production of space, in what follows, I describe the conditions that led architects to recognize ravines as sites of developmental potential in Guatemala City. In order to be designated as spaces for development, I argue that ravines first needed to be redefined volumetrically and epistemically, revealing new parameters for thinking about where the built environment can reside. (read more...)

Gods, AIs, and Mormon Transhumanism

I’d like to start this post by juxtaposing two scenes. The first one is set about two years ago, and occurred on the third floor of the Provo, Utah Convention Center. The scene was very similar to the one found in any academic conference—down to the dais, the rows of chairs, and a screen designed for projecting PowerPoint slides. We were between presentations, and as often happens during moments such as these, I was spending the interstitial moments catching up with acquaintances I mostly know from on-line interactions. In the case at hand, the person I was talking to is in his late twenties or early thirties, someone who had recently left his position in the United States Marines; in fact, he had left the military so recently that he still had the short haircut associated with service. On his arm, he also had a tattoo of an electromagnetic equation. He is holding one hand out in front of my face as we talk. In normal conversations, a gesture like that would be rude, but this was not a normal conversation. This is because he was describing how, at very close distances, he can feel the presence of electricity with his hands. He had gained this ability through intervening in his physical body—biohacking—which I will return to shortly. (read more...)