Out of the fragments, our archeologist begins to piece together a story, a history, about our times. We could also consider the 58 MOCA staff listed in the catalog, or perhaps the wider circle of 61 more people further acknowledged, including many in Los Angeles who helped with materials for the installation, including Omar’s Exotic Birds, Soil & Sod Depot, Legacy Rock and Waterscapes, Milk Bakery, Farmers Market Poultry, and Valeria’s Chiles and Spices. It also points to intriguing new possibilities for the future. Or is the protagonist much broader than that? These changes may not be readily identifiable, only sensed through a feeling or a hunch. Ghosh argues that modern literature, and the novel in particular, has left us ill-equipped to think about the world we live in now. I always find it quite meaningful and confusing when I’m speaking in English. More nitrogen fertilizer is applied in agriculture than is fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems; nitric oxide production by the burning of fossil fuel and biomass also overrides natural emissions. In SF that is not set in some distant future or on some distant planet, we encounter near-future scenarios in a world that is nearly identical to our own and yet changed in fundamental and momentous ways. Can we, finally, with this perspective, inflect the history in which we are embedded? They argued that we no longer inhabit the Holocene, the period from the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago up to the present (indeed, Holocene actually means “entirely new or recent,” or, if you will, the present).
In Closing, an Opening
In her conversation with Villar Rojas, Molesworth says:
Your work suggests that it is possible that the museum as an institution might not survive the twenty-first century, but the whole kit and caboodle — civilization, humanity, the Earth — are also on the wane. Ghosh builds a provocative, important argument across three essays on stories, history, and politics that originated as three lectures. What does the archeologist of the future find? They claimed that human beings had so transformed Earth that our impact would not only be visible in geological strata in the future, but would mark a distinctive boundary in the history of the planet. The Theater of Disappearance works both of these angles. What were they doing with it? The show, which is currently at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles, is one of the most thought-provoking, disturbing explorations of the Anthropocene yet, in any medium. This question also comes up in Villar Rojas’s show. In response, Villar Rojas makes a provocative observation, reflecting back on Greece, where he was in residence in 2016. We become archeologists of our own era. So who are the diggers and designers of the Anthropocene in The Theater of Disappearance? Many of us have come to understand that what makes us different — nationality, race and ethnicity, gender, class, religion, culture, language, and other facets of our existence, identity, and experience — may be just as important to who “we” are as our biological species, and in some cases much more important. Dam building and river diversion have become commonplace. The Anthropocene, in its most basic form, and in many of its specific formulations, posits “human beings” as a species and as the “we” who are responsible for this altered planet. Villar Rojas also shipped in stratified columns from Planetarium, an exhibition at the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, and silicone molds that were part of the Istanbul exhibition The Most Beautiful of All Mothers. No one planned for climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and toxification. For pessimists, the Anthropocene is a new version of what environmental historians call a declensionist narrative — an old story template about decline, end times, the fall from grace. As Peter Kareiva and others argued in the journal Science a decade ago, one important feature of the Anthropocene is that people have domesticated nearly the entire world. Since then, the burning of fossil fuels, especially in the period of the “Great Acceleration” after World War II, along with exponential population growth, nitrogen production and deposition, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change have all left distinct traces around the world that will be readable in the geological strata by future geologists. It’s outside the frame. The protagonist could be the artist himself, Adrián Villar Rojas and perhaps the 19 collaborators from Argentina, Brazil, and France who work closely with him. We’re earth-movers. Or more simply, in the room on any given day? Some of the placement of objects is determined by chance operations and encounters during the design and installation. Villar Rojas is exploring layers of history, setting up uncanny tableaus of our own frenetic time slowed down by sedimentation. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Marris joined geographer Erle Ellis and biologists Joseph Mascaro and Peter Kareiva in rejecting the declensionist narrative while proposing a path forward in a thoroughly altered landscape: “The Anthropocene does not represent the failure of environmentalism,” they wrote. In part, it is the hidden work behind the making of the exhibition: “the cleaning, renewing, and reorganizing the space,” as the artist says, that made this spectacle possible. The “realistic” also seems to be shifting and growing increasingly weird, as ice caps melt, powerful hurricanes and typhoons rampage more frequently than ever, and floods, droughts, and fires plague the world. Crutzen himself fits this mold as he catalogs the damage we have done to the planet. A visitor may feel some of that in The Theater of Disappearance. Doesn’t this kind of boldness border on hubris? Fossil-fuel burning and agriculture have caused substantial increases in the concentrations of “greenhouse” gases — carbon dioxide by 30% and methane by more than 100% — reaching their highest levels over the past 400 millennia, with more to follow. Crutzen and Stoermer argued that the present as we had conceived it was actually over. Who’s the “we” in the “Theater of Disappearance”?
Agency, Intention, and Assemblages
The show also raises questions around agency and intentionality. The methane-producing cattle population has risen to 1.4 billion. Villar Rojas goes on:
The American, British, French and German schools, whose respective national states were designing their own democratic, rationalist, and even supremacist “roots” — the legacy inherited straight from the ancient Greeks — during the last part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The pieces assembled in the show seem like artifacts of a lost world — a larger totality — but of course, the art-viewing public can be much more limited and specific than that. This was a new epoch, which they called the Anthropocene, the human age. Howard Chair in Literary Studies at the UCLA English Department and the author, most recently, of Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. In this version of science fiction, our world is presented as if it were science fiction. What makes them think that in the future, we’ll be able to manage the planet so much better than we have in the past? The objects are under glass, embedded in concrete, or refrigerated, allowing our present to be contemplated as part of a much longer, even geological arc of history. With our tickets in our pockets, having arrived here from somewhere else, having sorted the recycling and put out the trash, left our beds made or unmade, we’re not looking in from the outside. In the catalog, Villar Rojas clarifies that many of these objects are actually leftovers from previous exhibitions of his, “recycled in a kind of second life at MOCA, completing a journey from ‘art’ to ‘prime matter’ and then art again.” One hundred and eleven volcanic rocks, chunks of marble, petrified trees, and hundreds of organic objects — including the remains of birds, fish, decomposing meat, jewelry, boots, and glass — were part of Rinascimento, an exhibition in Turin, Italy, in 2015, and were shipped to Los Angeles and incorporated into The Theater of Disappearance. We can become Earth-restorers and Earth-guardians. This is the future we already inhabit. Is it again the entire human species? He notes how central ancient Greece has been to a certain idea of Western civilization, and how that idea was constructed and designed at the same time as archeology developed in the area. The interior is painted the deep dark underwater blue of a sky at late dusk. There’s no evidence that the best of intentions is good enough. The great novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh explores this question in depth in his recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. “Housekeeping,” then, refers to all of that invisible labor which allows the show to exist. This feeling is best captured by William Gibson’s oft-quoted quip: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
While the first science fiction form allows us to inhabit the past of an imagined future, the second puts us in a future that is already materializing, already making our present obsolete. All signs of housekeeping have disappeared, though of course, the labor remains. They have not settled on where to put the boundary. Heise is the Marcia H. In fact, it is in some ways the most important “disappearing” thing in the exhibition, whose disappearance or absence is meant to attract our attention. No one wants to talk about the dust under the bed.”
“The Great Derangement”
The Theater of Disappearance raises one more question, which for us may be most troubling: whether we’re even capable of thinking about and telling stories about the Anthropocene. And yet, the Anthropocene has already taken on a vibrant cultural life quite apart from the scientific debate among geologists. He writes:
During the past three centuries the human population has increased tenfold to more than 6 billion and is expected to reach 10 billion in this century. Spectators walk around with phone flashlights, forced into the role of discoverers, diggers, spelunking a past that looks like the future, or the present. In The Theater of Disappearance, Villar Rojas creates a stage for asking ourselves some big questions about these narrative templates and ideas.
Domestication and Housekeeping
The third big idea of the exhibition actually hides in plain sight. These questions, like the layered columns and refrigerated vitrines in his exhibition, might serve as guideposts or topoi as we think about the Anthropocene. We’re imbricated and implicated in The Theater of Disappearance. In a conversation printed in the catalog, Villar Rojas and Helen Molesworth, the curator of the exhibition, call this “housekeeping,” and it is central to the work of the artist, particularly in The Theater of Disappearance. This small room looks like an empty backroom or backstage, but is clearly not at all functional — an empty Easter egg that seems to mock our looking for something behind the scenes. Rather, its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” According to Jameson, our present is “unavailable to us for contemplation in its own right [because] the sheer quantitative immensity of objects and individual lives it comprises” makes our postmodern condition “so untotalizable and hence unimaginable.” Our present is also “occluded by the density of our private fantasies” and “the proliferating stereotypes of a media culture that penetrates every remote zone of our existence.” But when we return from a visit to the imaginary futures of science fiction, our present is offered to us in a new form, “the form of [that] future world’s remote past, as if posthumous and as though collectively remembered.” Science fiction thus provides, enables, and, indeed, enacts for the reader “a structurally unique ‘method’ for apprehending the present as history.” This method is especially powerful with dystopias and apocalyptic narratives that can encourage us to think about what we could do in the present to try to ensure that a dystopian future does not become reality. How does it assemble them around these objects over the run of the exhibition? “The most characteristic SF,” Jameson writes, “does not seriously attempt to imagine the ‘real’ future of our social system. It was, in fact, now the past. There is, however, another, slightly different method at work in some science fiction, which is also at work in the exhibition. They have not even come to an official decision about whether to accept this new nomenclature. At the same time, all these excavations erased the “undesirable” Ottoman past. One single fact is enough to illustrate this idea: the largest and most ambitious archaeological venture in Athens — excavating a large portion of the city to discover the Stoa of the Athenians — was funded by Rockefeller. The objects in this show really hold center stage. The objects in the show, in fact, appear to have been discarded, intentionally or unintentionally. No one intended these outcomes. Can we take these questions about the Anthropocene, provoked by the show, beyond the four walls of an exhibition or out from between the covers? Or is it us in the here and now? Interestingly, this shorthand has come to mean two quite different things. In this world, we have become as powerful as geological and atmospheric forces, and, yet, we are also, it seems, powerless in the face of global change. It’s especially curious when you consider that some of the most fundamental human transformations of the planet were unintended consequences. We should start with one of the most basic questions that the conversations and narratives around the Anthropocene raise. Is it someone in the future looking back on our times? He goes on:
We don’t have this distinction in the Spanish language between history and story.
Who’s the “We”? The redesign was done by Frank Gehry, but then Villar Rojas and his team redesigned the redesign and built their site-specific installation within this new frame. The excavations were intended to recover — to design — this white, Western culture. But the one billion wealthiest inhabitants on Earth have contributed most to the problems cataloged by Crutzen and others and reaped the greatest benefits, too, while the bottom three billion have added very little to the burden, benefited hardly at all, and will suffer most from the consequences of the Anthropocene. “I do believe there’s a much more committed way of relating to and constructing our past than to just clean, reshape, and tell a partial story,” Villar Rojas says in his conversation with Molesworth. About 30-50% of the planet’s land surface is exploited by humans. So much is beyond our control, from the sunlight we depend on, to earthquakes that threaten our cities, to the swarms of crown-of-thorns starfish devouring the Great Barrier Reef — much of nature and its processes remain resolutely nonhuman. And as Villar Rojas told the Argentinian newspaper La Nación: “I don’t have nor do I pretend to have any control over the semiotic dimensions of the material that I liberate. Science fiction also functions in ways that are interesting and useful for understanding the Anthropocene and The Theater of Disappearance. It has become a shorthand for not only human dominance of vast portions of Earth and its life-forms, but also for a fundamental shift in the relationship between people and nature. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it. We’re not passive, we’re not helpless. Energy use has grown 16-fold during the twentieth century, causing 160 million tonnes of atmospheric sulphur dioxide emissions per year, more than twice the sum of its natural emissions. This kind of deletion happens all the time, all over the world. As Fredric Jameson famously argued, the function of SF futures is to put readers in the position of seeing themselves and their own times — that is, the present — as the past of a future yet to come.
Science Fiction Narratives
Science fiction, on the other hand, is a genre that has had no trouble encompassing grand scales of time and space, and incorporating unrealistic settings as well as the agency of the nonhuman. Does the exhibition and the museum address itself to some particular public or publics? Fisheries remove more than 25% of the primary production in upwelling ocean regions and 35% in the temperate continental shelf. What do you mean “we,” white man? The Theater of Disappearance opens up important questions about our time here on Earth and, as Molesworth suggests, the show also opens up questions about the role of the artist, the curator, and the museum, as well as audiences and public conversations in the Anthropocene. ¤
Feature Image: Installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance, October 22, 2017–May 13, 2018 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, image courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Mexico City and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris / London, photo by Studio Michel Zabé
Banner Image: Installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance, October 22, 2017–May 13, 2018 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, image courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Mexico City and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris / London, photo by Studio Michel Zabé Helen Molesworth makes the necessary resilience of this kind of work clear: “One of the things that I feel certain will survive in one hundred years,” she says, “is that somebody is still going to have to clean up.”
This attention to housekeeping has an interesting parallel to another significant idea at the center of the Anthropocene — domestication. APRIL 15, 2018
IMAGINE A FUTURE ARCHEOLOGIST on a dig in what was once downtown Los Angeles, excavating, exposing layers of history, like the paleontologists at the La Brea Tar Pits are doing today, finding bones of saber-toothed cats, mammoth, and dire wolves. This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. This puts me in a vexed position. In light of the Anthropocene, he has modified that slogan to say more recently: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.”
But where do the optimists of the Anthropocene — and there are many like Brand — get their confidence? And how does that change the way we see the world both within and outside those walls? Historia is storytelling and history. It takes over the cavernous former police warehouse downtown. This term, the Anthropocene, was first proposed in an article published at the turn of the millennium by Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric scientist, and his colleague Eugene Stoermer, an ecologist. Distance is indeterminate. “Humans did not […] stop with simply domesticating a few chosen species,” they argued,
we have domesticated vast landscapes and entire ecosystems. Instead of a Wunderkammer that is part of a colonialist enterprise, cataloging the wonders of an expanding empire, The Theater of Disappearance works to decolonize our past, present, and future. The Theater of Disappearance isn’t afraid to engage with the nonhuman and that element of chance beyond our control. They are all side effects of other activities. It means I don’t know how to be your curator. Is this history or story? Perhaps the protagonists of this story are, in fact, inanimate — the story of the world told through an assemblage of disparate objects and life-forms brought together in one exhibition. ¤
Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. “Our relationship with nature has changed,” Ackerman writes, “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad. […] Under this paradigm, our challenge is to understand and thoughtfully manage the tradeoffs among ecosystem services that result from the inevitable domestication of nature. At the same time, the exhibition challenges our inclination to always put ourselves at the center of the narrative. Some critics have proposed the “Homogenocene” as a better label for our epoch, because globalization is causing the planet to become more homogenous ecologically, economically, and even culturally. The Theater of Disappearance turns the museum into a global representation of our cosmopolitan species and our messy multispecies assemblages. We’re at a great turning, our own momentous fork in the road, behind us eons of geological history, ahead a mist-laden future, and all around us the wonders and uncertainties of the Human Age.” This leads Ackerman to an exaltation of human power: “These days, startling though the thought is, we control our own legacy. But, as Molesworth notes in her conversation with Villar Rojas: “Housekeeping occupies no position of privilege in any narrative. In these ways, the critique here is both targeted and vast, forcing the viewer to rethink the relationship between the part and the whole: between art and the world. One of the tropes of the Anthropocene is best characterized by the futurist and technologist Stewart Brand’s famous quip: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Brand said that in 1968 around the founding of the Whole Earth Catalog. Geologists are still in the formal processes of examining evidence for the claims behind the term. But who left all this stuff here? The world in this science fiction is barely distinguishable from ours, it just feels uncannily different. A viewer may be able to feel it or sense it, but it’s not visible. Trashed sneakers, pieces of meat, broken prosthetics, disemboweled electronics, parts of robots and birds, collections of feathers, skeletons, lobsters, roots, tubers, bird nests, shark skin, spiders, beetles, mushrooms, papaya, bread, seashells, palm fronds, amphorae, layered columns, a bicycle wheel, pendants, a cross, seahorses, bones, blood, lianas, cod fish, a sickle, a broken egg, coral, amber, random erratic boulders, vertebrae, petrified wood, seed pods, a sandwich, a prosthetic hand holding bones. The New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tersely condensed this view when she tweeted in 2014: “2 words that probably should not be used in sequence: ‘good’ & ‘anthropocene.’”
On the other hand, the Anthropocene has engendered an equal and quite opposite reaction — an odd celebration of our awesome powers. Nobody wants to talk about cleaning up. This is one of the roles that The Theater of Disappearance, an exhibition by the Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas casts its audience in. How did these things come together in these layers and strange assemblages of the human and the nonhuman, the animate and the inanimate? Or both? Even on a personal level, do we say “our history together” or “our story together”? This is also a role that the Anthropocene casts us in. It is not ruined. In another move that defines the Anthropocene, history and natural history can no longer be separated. More than half of all accessible fresh water is used by mankind. And yet the Persian and Ottoman cultures crossed all over Greece and are so deep inside its history. The Theater of Disappearance is an example of a different kind of archeology, a different kind of presentation of history, and a different kind of museum exhibition.
Welcome to the Anthropocene. Perhaps a more realistic framing would include cleaning up the mess we’ve made. Tropical rainforests disappear at a fast pace, releasing carbon dioxide and strongly increasing species extinction. In the exhibition, this is slyly hinted at by a mysterious room hidden within the cavernous exhibition space. Others have proposed the “Capitalocene,” because capitalism is, after all, really responsible for the mess we’re in. Ursula K. What happened? Noted nature writer Diane Ackerman’s latest book The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us exemplifies this view. We still have time and imagination, and we have a great many choices […] [O]ur mistakes are legion, but our talent is immeasurable.”
In between the poles of the triumphalist techno-optimists, like Ackerman, and the prophets of doom, like Kolbert and Crutzen, there is plenty of room for middle ground, which is well represented by the science writer Emma Marris, who explored this more moderate view in her book The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. The novel, with its focus on individual protagonists and realistic plots and settings, cannot help us think about a world shaped not by individuals but by our collective actions and their unintended consequences. It’s very interesting to think that in Spanish it’s historia. So while we may not be gods, we are, at least, household gods in the Anthropocene, charged with caring for our thoroughly domesticated planet — if you think about our role charitably. It is also the past that a future observer could look back on to try to understand what on Earth we were doing here. Everything that happens is an effect of the total emancipation of these agents, including the actual material understood as an agent.” In his embrace of chance and of the agency of others, Villar Rojas implicitly acknowledges what Anthropocene optimists still deny — the elements of this story that are beyond our control. In a narrow sense, this is a vision of an art world lost in a new era it cannot fathom. This includes the labor of converting a former police warehouse into a museum of contemporary art in the first place. […] Ours is a world of nature domesticated, albeit to varying degrees, from national parks to high-rise megalopolises. So “who is the designer?” he asks. Who are the housekeepers? As the artist himself puts it: “If I had to choose one word for us to discuss together — a word that has implicitly traversed our dialogue during these past two years — it would be ‘housekeeping.’”
What does that word mean in this context? We can also take another angle on that question: Who’s the observer in this strange exhibition? It is the stage on which a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism can be built. The collection, shipment, and arrangement of these things were all intentional, of course, but the artist doesn’t control the exhibition entirely. Even if you haven’t been immersed in it, you can probably imagine that there is no end to debate about the Anthropocene. The Theater of Disappearance also destabilizes our notion of who the protagonist is in the narrative posited by the show. “Obviously, the digger.” And who is the digger? According to them, the Holocene had ended around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine.