Objects of the past and future fill Anthropocene ‘cabinet of curiosities’

October 22, 2014

After reaching your hand into a Hazmat glove, you pull a BlackBerry Curve 8300 from a slick of crude oil. This BlackBerry an icon of connectivity and productivity upon its release in 2007 now seems unwieldy in comparison to today’s smartphones, which have driven it into obsolescence.

The “extinct device” meant to represent a future fossil is one of 25 objects that will be presented Nov. 8-10 at The Anthropocene Slam: A Cabinet of Curiosities, a series of free public events at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. 

Like a poetry slam where the performers are historians, geographers, anthropologists and artists, the Anthropocene Slam will feature pitch sessions from an international array of scientists and scholars.

Slam presenters will each have ten minutes to explain why their object is representative of the Anthropocene, or the age of humans — a new epoch marked by the profound impact people are having on the global environment. Audience members can then engage with the presenters and their pitched objects, and vote on which 15 pieces belong in the final cabinet of curiosities.

Elizabeth Kolbert
Writer and author Elizabeth
Kolbert will present a
keynote lecture on Nov. 8.

Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of recent New York Times bestseller “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” will present the keynote lecture — also free and open to the public — at 7 p.m. on Nov. 8 in the Discovery building’s DeLuca Forum.

“People should come into this thinking of it as a fun event, but at the same time centered around a very serious topic,” says Gregg Mitman, director of the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE), who helped organize the workshop.

For example, Jared Farmer, the writer and environmental historian behind the BlackBerry presentation, says his object makes an analogy to biology and extinction in jest, but also in seriousness.

“There's a troubled relationship material and verbal between throwaway consumer capitalism and biodiversity loss,” Farmer writes in his object’s description. “Brazenly, technologists have coopted the language of ecology and evolution to naturalize planned obsolescence and to pay tribute to the economic game of extinction.”

The Anthropocene Slam is hosted by CHE in coordination with a range of campus and international partners, supported by a grant from the UW-Madison Center for German and European Studies. It is part of a continued collaboration around the theme of environmental futures between CHE, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, and the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.

The idea of the slam came about as a way to explore the Anthropocene, and the moral implications of human-induced environmental change, across the arts, humanities and sciences. The 25 objects being presented were narrowed from a field of 72 submissions from visual artists, performance artists, scientists, anthropologists, historians and literary scholars.

“It can be hard to do interdisciplinary work around a topic, but around an object people can relate,” says Mitman, the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of the History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. “It will be exciting to have these different ways of relating to the world now relating to things in a room together.”

A goal of the event, according to Mitman, is to think beyond the instantaneous to longer frames of time, and to consider how scaling up environmental problems at the global level can mask economic, environmental and social inequities faced by local communities in different parts of the world.

“One of the things I’m hoping people will come away with is how do the objects that are being brought forth force us to think about the scales of time and space in a different way,” Mitman says. “How do we think about large-scale planetary change at the same time that we're attentive to the very differential consequences on the ground?”

Fifteen final objects, determined by audience feedback in Madison, will become part of a major museum exhibition, Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands, that will open on Dec. 5, 2014, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany, and will run through Jan. 31, 2016.