The recent Anthropocene Slam at UW-Madison was galvanizing, intense, sometimes depressing, often provocative, and always inspiring. Most of all, it was exceptionally fun. The cabinet of curiosities that will emerge from the event and be displayed next year at the Deutsches Museum in Munich promises to be all those things as well. As Gregg Mitman noted, the Slam was a prime example of how the urgency of global environmental change is inspiring interdisciplinary research and imaginative storytelling. Offering context for rather disparate objects and showcasing connections and feedback in innovative ways, the event illustrated the challenges, complexity, and nuance of the Anthropocene.
The range of topics, objects, and provocative ideas that emerged at the Slam—from atomic geo-engineering, to the worrisome nature of concrete—would challenge anyone’s attempt at synthesis. With apologies to those I won’t mention, I’m going to avoid the trap of recounting each moment of this adventurous workshop (for that, I’ll direct you to the #anthroslam Twitter archive).
Instead, I will focus my attention on three interlinked concepts that I found to be central to the intellectual development of the Slam: the everyday, play, and mutiny.
Telling stories through objects is at the forefront of the contemporary humanities, as exemplified by projects ranging from the local history of Wisconsin to the British Museum’s global History of the world in 100 objects. Matt Edgeworth and other archaeologists recently argued that the Anthropocene needs to be similarly analyzed from the point of view of its artifacts. As Rob Nixon stresses in his post introducing the Slam, the event and the cabinet want to build a collection of “object-driven stories,” with the specific aim of “giv[ing] immense biomorphic and geomorphic changes a granular intimacy.” But with an ever-increasing amount of stuff in our lives, we have lost track of individual objects and intimacy with our connections to them, as suggested by both Christof Mauch and Libby Robin. In the age of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, everyday things have become intrinsically representative of global, all-encompassing processes. The Anthropocene Slam offered a way for us to reconsider trivial, mundane objects (e.g. batteries, the thermostat, AOL CDs, a Blackberry Curve) as fundamental curiosities of the 21st century.
But if individual objects may be deemed unspectacular at a first glance, the same cannot be said of the overarching narrative of the Slam, and especially not of the way these objects were pitched and performed for the public. Play, in all its complexity, was central to the event.
Presenters at the Slam treated the audiences to a variety of approaches to public speaking, both challenging and playing with the standards of academic communication. Great dramatic performances took us back and forth in time, from the 1950s stage for Michelle Mart and Cameron Muir’s Flit pump, to the 2060 backdrop for Tom Bristow’s Silene stenophylla seed. Julianne Lutz Warren, meanwhile, used audience participation to echo her performance, stressing themes of reproduction and simulation in her object—a human imitating the song of the extinct Huia bird. Partly in response to the theatrical setting of the Slam, Bethany Wiggin called for us to revolutionize the scholarship of the Anthropocene, to move it away from classical Aristotelian drama like Faust and towards a more experimental Brechtian approach.
The play we experienced, however, was not only performative. Playing as in playing games was an important part of the event as well. Erica Damman brought us an interesting work of art on the lost lakes of Iowa, which, through the mechanism of the puzzle, invited the audience to relate interactively to a local story embedded in a broader Anthropocene narrative. Other games were either presented—the nuclear crisis themed 1979 board game Containment, for example—or enacted between performers and the audience. Nils Hanwahr threw a stuffed seal into the audience as he tracked tagged marine mammals through the ocean. Liz Hennessy invited audience members to recreate a flying flock of paper Passenger Pigeons as part of her de-extinction cryogenic freezer box.
Finally, Marco Armiero called for mutiny as a way to challenge the inequalities of the Anthropocene, since, to use Rob Nixon’s words, “we may all be in the Anthropocene, but we are not all in it in the same way.” Armiero invited us to substitute the Titanic metaphor—a sinking ship where life and death are a matter of class—with that of the HMS Bounty. Mutiny opens a space of possibility and opportunity in which social justice becomes central to a new narrative of the Anthropocene.
During the Slam we were trying, as Rob Nixon put it, not only to build a cabinet of curiosities, but also to change the world. And we had a jolly good time doing both. A playful, non-violent mutiny is, I believe, the only way to retain elements of collaboration and cooperation in our pursuit of change and adaptation. Russian naturalist and anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin suggests in Mutual Aid that cooperation is central to evolution and survival. Cooperation beyond the human realm—as called for by Donald Worster in his discussion of “higher altruism”—is probably the only strategy for survival in the Anthropocene. Play is not only a high form of cooperation, as Bill Cronon observed in his concluding remarks, but also both a way of learning and a call for hope. So let’s play more and get this fixed!
Wilko Graf von Hardenberg is DAAD Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental History. His research focuses on socio-political aspects of nature perception and management in modern Europe, digital history, and the history of the environmental sciences. His two most recent projects look respectively at environmental conflict in the Alps and at the development of the concept of the mean sea level in both geodesy and the climate sciences. Contact. Twitter. Website.