Processing the Anthropocene
An Interview with Giulia Bruno and Armin Linke
Earth Indices incorporates documents and materials from the stratigraphic research on the Anthropocene. You selected and developed these documents in very close collaboration with the scientists involved in the research. Can you describe your working process?
Over the past two or three years, we’ve been working with the twelve research groups supporting the Anthropocene Working Group’s (AWG) proposal to include the Anthropocene as a new unit on the International Chronostratigraphic Chart. We were in continuous conversation with the scientists. Ours was definitely not a neutral position, not the kind imagined by a traditional understanding of documentary photography as “recording from a detached, objective standpoint” — that is pure ideology. Documentation is never neutral; it is always also a framing. We first spent several months in an intense learning process, to understand their work, the procedures they use in their practices. In a series of digital meetings, we then asked the scientists to collect and produce images: of the extraction of cores and sediments, the sectioning of samples, the conservation of them, their analysis, as well as images produced by the laboratory instruments and equipment such as microscopes and scanners. We also asked them to photograph the images on the equipment screens.
We are playing with stratigraphy as a sort of digging into the process
Some were taken with analog cameras, a while back. Other photographs were taken during the digital meetings, with some guidance from us. We preselected some of the collected images and then discussed them with each group in separate workshops. To better understand the information held by these images, we asked the scientists to create inscriptions using graphic gestures from their practices — marking, commenting, annotating — in PDF documents.
The exhibition comprises a large variety of images and documents that are framed by a standardized visual register. What is the nature of this register?
Together with Linda van Deursen we created the graphic design concept for a standardized image template based on the PDF file format, as the standard for the production and distribution of scientific papers. In September 2021, we held a physical studio session with the scientists to present the way we’d like them to do the PDF notations. We also shared a spreadsheet for the input of metadata. When we received this material, we curated it again, always checking with the scientists for errors.
It is important to understand how they function as a gesture of science, how data are obtained and how this kind of image enters scientific analysis.
We now have about 500 images, of which 150 are included in the exhibition; all are composed into image PDFs containing metadata, the collected photographs and comments. Metadata is treated as image. Linda’s graphic design concept provides a structure for composing the metadata: the scientists supply institutional data, technical and core analysis data, dates, location, marker, media equipment, file formats, geographical coordinates, analysis details and the relevant copyright. The standardized structure allows the public to see both how the different groups worked together and the differences between their work. This layout is a kind of a “strati-graph,” with different layers. We are playing with stratigraphy as a sort of digging into the process.
We translated the PDF images into several scales for the exhibition, so the audience is able to zoom in and out of the images. There are large, blown-up prints laid out over two sheets of paper, as diptychs of sorts. We have set up the exhibition space to let a dialogue unfold through the index card system — between this gesture of archive-making as history is being created, on the one hand, and books and other reference materials produced by the scientists as part of their past and ongoing research, on the other. The index cards include all 500 images so as to supply the overall context of the exhibition. This full selection will also form part of a PDF publication available for download at anthropocene-curriculum.org
The individual works of Earth Indices show mostly photographs, but also notes, sketches and graphs. What is the nature of these images — what kinds of information do they transmit?
Many of these images have an operational function. It is important to understand how they function as a gesture of science, how data are obtained and how this kind of image enters scientific analysis.
Every image should have its cultural quality; automatically, this is also an aesthetic quality.
A graph is an image, and so too is a core sample, since often it is not the material core that is analyzed but rather images of it. In science, you cannot see something without relating it to context: an image without the metadata and the source is nothing.
It is extremely interesting to look at the landscapes surrounding the core extraction sites in their context. For instance, the backdrop to the core site in Poland is this mountain that looks like pristine landscape. But it was selected as a research site because it lies in the so-called Black Triangle between Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany, subjected, for decades, to severe environmental pollution. Some of these places and landscapes point to a cultural imaginary of depictions of nature.
The drone images of the Searsville Reservoir site above San Francisco are spectacular. On a raft in the middle of the lake, we see the scientists pulling up a sediment core. It is a trompe l’oeil: the drone lets us see this is human-made “nature” by connecting this human-made lake to Silicon Valley and the Pacific Ocean. We understand that this core is bound within the anthropocenic geopolitical landscape — a result of the colonization and exploitation of the land in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This is what emerges when you observe and merge all this information. Every image should have its cultural quality; automatically, this is also an aesthetic quality. We hope that this juxtaposing of text with images can be a trigger for political reflection on the contexts.
Although the scientists took some of the photographs upon your suggestion, most were produced within the scientific process, without any kind of greater public in mind. Could you elaborate on the function of these images in the scientific work?
The materiality of the core describes time, technology, climate change, changes to Earth — it partitions these changes into something a bit like a musical score. To read and interpret this score, you need different media technologies, photographs and chemical processes, which are transformed into data and then analyzed again. As photographers and artists, we’re interested in seeing how all these instruments, not just the most spectacular ones, form part of the larger set of information and culture production. And, perhaps, we’re interested in destabilizing the hierarchy of spectacularity — in understanding where the image, the photography, fails. We asked for images beyond those normally submitted with a scientific paper, such as images from the scientists’ mobile phones, and we asked many questions about them.
This scale has a materiality: the scientists examining changes at the planetary scale do so by looking at minuscule particles.
For previous projects, such as Prospecting Oceans (2018), we looked at the history of the mapping of the seafloor. Once sonar technology was developed for military purposes, underwater maps were created. These maps delivered the information that the seabed also holds geological potential for extraction. Geological imaging technology thus created the problem, triggering political negotiation on how to colonize these resources through the creation of the International Seabed Authority. It was interesting to us that imaging technology created a politico-economic and geopolitical situation.
How does your way of looking at these images differ from the practices of scientific observation?
Scientific observation is about using the tools at one’s disposal: despite the different technologies used for scientific versus aesthetic ways of looking, the result is quite similar. We are interested in more of an anthropological approach to the history of science and media science — a process of making it as it takes place.
We like the idea of taking this fundamental laboratory practice and saying that this exhibition is a kind of a poetic collective logbook of the process.
It is this multiplicity or variability of commenting, layering and inscribing that interests us. We, together with the scientists, are proposing just one layer, but we hope this material is also used for future readings and interpretations, by other stakeholders and communities with different approaches.
There are at least three layers discernible in the Earth Indices documents. There are the photographs, then there is a recurring grid containing the metadata and, finally, there are comments of a very different tone and typography. Can you explain what these three layers are and how they relate to each other?
The last layer, the comments, are personal gestures by the scientists, part of a specific artistic and graphic tradition of annotation. There is also this notion of the logbook. Every scientist has one. Even in the most sophisticated astrophysics, DNA research and geological laboratories, you still make notes by hand. We like the idea of taking this fundamental laboratory practice and saying that this exhibition is a kind of a poetic collective logbook of the process — an open logbook, too, as we could add pages and other notes, as a stratigraphic gesture, in future.
The metadata, on the other hand, is the institutional information, approved by the scientists. Metadata and comments are just as important as the photographs: to understand a photograph, you need this contextualizing information. Metadata is part of this system of language creation, of a stratigraphy of coding: the image, as a result, comes from a code.
Core sampling is an attempt at scaling time.
Metadata also protects the source. We adapted the IPTC Photo Metadata standard into a system that, along with the PDF standard, protects scientists against misinterpretation, protects knowledge. If you quote the image, you must quote the text. We also wanted to highlight that every image we produce in our daily life, say with our mobile phones, contains metadata and encoded information embedded and distributed with the file; we often forget this.
The handwritten comments on the other hand have a sort of a poetry and lightness, an interpretational hint at personal storytelling for the public. This is not romantic; rather, it’s the contrary.
So, these interacting layers are contained within the individual works. The exhibition comprises a vast collection of these works. How, then, do they interact with each other?
We are working with this concept of scale in the exhibition. Core sampling is an attempt at scaling time. Geological time used to be very expanded — measured over millions of years — and now it is compressed to miniscule layers in rocks and sediments. This scale has a materiality: the scientists examining changes at the planetary scale do so by looking at minuscule particles. The cores come in different sizes: the ice core is 130 meters in length, and the coral cores mere centimeters. From the scientists, we’ve learned that we are, basically, reading rocks as a book of timescale. The scientific process translates into a sculptural concept through the change of the state of matter. Some of the rocks need to be turned into gas for ion analysis, ice needs to be melted and so on.
Our exhibition display system merges two materialities: the two-dimensional, unframed paper prints, and the three-dimensional, sculptural metal structure hanging from the ceiling. This choreographic system, with images grouped into narrative islands, juxtaposes the different technologies with the materialities of the processes. The Earth Indices installation is conceived of as an artistic exhibition but also as a tool for performative and active reading of the entirety of the AWG scientists’ work. This process is not closed, and so the exhibition will continue to evolve until the AWG officially presents its proposal.