The anticipated formal adoption of the Anthropocene by the International Union of Geological Sciences offers an opportunity to develop forms of praxis informed by anti-racist and anti-colonial critiques of the Anthropocene and its mid-twentieth century start date. Moving beyond the impasse of the Anthropocene debates requires a broad suite of methods and voices. This short essay places Michael Egan’s concept of “survival science” in dialog with unexpected interlocutors historian Ibram X. Kendi and philosopher Alexis Shotwell to argue for explicitly anti-racist and anti-colonial praxis grounded in an ethic of humility. Reflections on a seminar organized by the authors for the recent research platform Mississippi: An Anthropocene River ground the theoretical work of Kendi and Shotwell in a concrete, if experimental attempt to work with the Anthropocene concept in anti-racist and anti-colonial ways, responsive to the specific entanglements of place.
More than forty years have elapsed since the term “global warming” first entered the scientific lexicon, and the scale and severity of predicted climate disruption has only grown. An ever-expanding body of creative work has sought to give form to the shift in Euro-American consciousness needed to apprehend the environment not as a background to human activity but rather a ‘web of life’ in which humans—and the profoundly unequal social formations instigated by (some) humans—both weave and are woven. The representational and narrative challenges posed by relationships of such complexity, scale, and duration are by well known. If there is any remaining utility in Timothy Morton’s much-cited term “hyperobject,” it may be found not in attempts to depict the object itself, but rather in tracing its contours, its folds, its roots: the overdetermined ways that it came to be, the places where we can feel it breathe. It may be, in other words, less a portrait than a performance.
This essay addresses performance as a mode for learning how to sense, move, sound, think, and feel a world de-familiarized by climate change. Using my own evening-length solo performance as an extended case study, I explore how the commitment to co-presence particular to live performance can function as a rehearsal for “staying with the trouble” of planetary entanglements. In particular, performance’s capacity to move between affective and analytic registers and to loosely layer and hold divergent sources of information is especially useful for the problem of narrating climate change in ways that the ‘trouble’ to continue to trouble, without being shunted into totalizing (and profoundly Western) invocations of apocalypse. Finally, I consider how performance can create spaces for the collective experiences of a critical ecological grief that may allow for movement through “The Great Dithering” and an abandonment of the illusions of (white) innocence that impeded living ethically and responsively within a threatened world.
Kanouse, Sarah, “Staying with the Troubling,” in Emily Eliza Scott, TJ Demos, and Subhankar Banerjee, eds., The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change. New York: Routledge, 2021, pp. 153-163.
Based in the hilly, unglaciated Driftless Area of the upper Midwest of the United States, Common/Place is a self-organized, off-the-grid platform for ecological resilience, cultural inquiry, and land-based pedagogy. The rustic setting offers a space to examine how such rural spaces have been both produced by and mobilized within the linked projects of capitalist extraction and settler colonial extermination and to connect and grow the nodes of resistance always present within such systems. Our primary project up to this point has been a series of experimental seminars assembling artists, writers, and cultural workers to learn from and with naturalists, historians, farmers, citizens of the Indigenous Ho-Chunk Nation, and the land itself. This grounded creative research and pedagogy generates a network of informal relationships that connect the urban and rural to break through the present moment of political retrenchment and set the stage for social and ecological cooperation in the face of the climate chaos to come. This practice-based, epistolary essay reflects on the first four years of Common/Place, highlighting constitutive tensions and continued negotiations around property, relationships, ecology, and time—individual, generational, and geological—that can quickly become sedimented in infrastructure and no longer open to question.
Sarah Kanouse and Nicholas Brown, “Common Tensions,” Passepartout 22, no. 40 (2020), 183-208.
The effects of the Anthropocene are not experienced evenly, and some are hit far harder than others. The seminar Over the Levee, Under the Plow took as its starting point one of these spaces: Blackhawk Park, a “wounded place” where the colonial ties of the Anthropocene become painfully palpable. While histories on settler colonization all too often treat it as a thing of the past, this essay, co-written with Ryan Griffis and Nicholas Brown, revises our opening statement from the seminar asking participants to consider their/our own implication in the settler colonial dimensions of the climate crisis.
In the winter and spring of 2018 I found myself frustrated equally by the annual Republican call to defund the NEH and NEA and by the contortions performed by many scholars and cultural workers conform narrow range of “fundability.” I approached Art Journal Open to convene a forum on the state of “support” for the arts and humanities today – broadly defined. “Beyond Survival” began as an open call for reflections on the state of arts funding in the United States as it actually manifests today. I hoped to facilitate a conversation that would go beyond shoring up the inadequate conditions of the present to consider the social functions fulfilled—and left unfilled—by the current landscape of support, as well as what emerging forms of artistic, intellectual, and political agency can be taken to affirmatively shape more desirable conditions in the future.
In October 2018, Art Journal Open published nearly twenty five responses grouped into four thematic categories: Beyond Neoliberalism, In Whose Interest?, Precarity and Potential, and Models and Case Studies. We invited four respondents to develop slightly longer position papers, which were released in Spring 2019. Over a year after the project was conceived I revisited the original prompt and the responses in a short essay in terms of the socio-ecological urgencies of the climate emergency.
I was fortunate to receive several invitations this spring and summer to contribute reviews and position papers to several interesting arts-academic web publications. The relatively short form and swift turnaround time is a welcome change from my usual pace of writing and making, where individual projects usually require at least year. Taken together, they do a pretty good job capturing my current preoccupation and commitments: that the climate emergency is now at the heart of everything and that it cannot be addressed without grappling deeply with violent epistemologies of colonial and white supremacist thought.
A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado is a digital public humanities project that documents and interprets nuclear geographies and legacies of the Cold War. The Atlas draws together background information, archival materials, accessible scholarly essays, artist interventions, and narratives of individuals and communities on the front lines of the domestic Cold War. Grounded in the specific location of Colorado and its nuclear materials and ecologies, the Atlas allows users to explore the US nuclear complex and its many scales of operation, relational geographies, and troubling future. It serves as a resource and as an interactive and inclusive digital platform where community members, activists, artists, veterans, workers, and policymakers can shape Cold War legacies through active interpretation. The Atlas aspires to be a civic infrastructure for citizen involvement in knowledge-making and policy.
The stakes in assembling, presenting, and interpreting the ongoing legacies of the American nuclear complex have never been higher. Amidst the fraying of international agreements and multibillion-dollar investments in new weapons, the world is poised on the brink of a new arms race. During the Cold War, hundreds of communities across the United States and the world were involved in (or subjected to) some aspect of nuclear weapons production, whether mining and enrichment, weapons production, testing, and deployment, or decommissioning and remediation. These activities have deeply marked human lives and ecologies in these places, yet there is little public awareness to inform citizen and policy action around a revived nuclear weapons program or in response to the complex multi-sited Cold War hazards that remain..
Powered by the Scalar publishing platform, the Atlas structures information according to the nuclear fuel cycle, from extraction, milling, and processing, to the assembly and deployment of weapons, and finally, to the storage and monitoring of waste. It challenges, however, conventional models of this process by weaving in its “shadow side:” environmental contamination, workplace exposures, boom and bust economies, geopolitical instability. Navigable both by browsing thematic paths and searching by keyword, the Atlas enables users to draw connections across different parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, build multi-sited understandings of nuclear issues, and generate new scalar relationships—between the local and the planetary, between policy and the personal. It presents cartographic, textual and image-based information on nuclear processes, and invites different knowledges and forms of meaning- making (geospatial, historical, oral-historical first person, etc.). The Atlas endeavors to be a living document that infuses discussion about nuclear policy and memory with humanistic forms of inquiry and public engagement.
In recent years a number of artists have produced works that are tours or ask the viewer to become a tourist. Much of this work presents itself as ‘critical,’ despite decades of scholarship examining tourism as a means of shoring up social class membership, naturalizing ideas of national patrimony, reinforcing the centrality of the Western gaze, and reproducing images of the exotic Other. This paper explores how touristic forms might be deployed in an oppositional, self-reflexive way that is responsive to how the experience of tourism is mediated by politics, economics, and cultural frameworks. For all the ways that conventional touristic learning might be superficial, marketized, and insulated by privilege, tourism is one cultural site where people expect to learn and seek out new knowledge about place. As such, tourism—both as an art and leisure pursuit—has rich potential as a form of performative, place-based pedagogy.
Kanouse, Sarah. “Critical Daytrips.” In Emily Eliza Scott and Kirsten J. Swenson, eds. Critical Landscapes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015, 43-56.
Over the last several years, a loose and shifting group of artists, activists, and thinkers has been exploring and creating work about the various forces, both top-down and grassroots, that shape neighborhoods, cities, and rural places in the globalized American Midwest. The Compass, as we are known, is a collective project of understanding where we are located—geographically, historically, culturally, economically, and ecologically—and of inhabiting, traversing, building and narrating what we call the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor. In this experimental, epistolary essay—part anecdote, part theory, part conversation—two Compass participants critically reflect on the group’s methods and collaborative structure. We analyze the micropolitics of our annual summer drifts and winter retreats in light of militant research, critical tourism, affective activism, and a politics of love.
Kanouse, Sarah and Heath Schultz, “Notes on Affective Practice: An Exchange,” Parallax 19:2 (2013) pp 7-20.
In light of constantly exploding bandwidth and nearly limitless digital storage, FM radio may appear an anachronistic means of communication. However, many new media artists are using this most ephemeral, unindexable, “old” medium instead of or in addition to digital technologies. In this paper, artist Sarah Kanouse discusses three of her own projects that use radio transmission as a unique, public material to create ephemeral monuments to difficult moments in American history. By using an analog and dissipating material, these pieces suggest that the struggle to remember is more meaningful than the total recall promised by the digital archive.
Kanouse, Sarah, “Transmissions Between Memory and Amnesia,” Leonardo Journal of Arts, Sciences, and Technology 44(3): 200-206.