Art and the Anthropocene — Anthropocene Week at the Minerva Art Academy Groningen

by Lauren Hoogen Stoevenbeld and Clara Vlessing

On 17th February the Minerva Art Academy, an art school in Groningen, exhibited the results of a week’s work around the theme of the Anthropocene. Following our own issue “Perspectives on the Anthropocene” in Winter 2016, Frame’s interest was piqued. Having explored academic discussions surrounding the Anthropocene, we were curious as to how it could be represented artistically. Would the Anthropocene mean the same thing or have the similar associations for artists? What new elements or perspectives could their art bring to the debates surrounding the Anthropocene? How could the Anthropocene be artistically represented? Keen to find answers to some of these questions we headed to Groningen to talk to the students and teachers of the Minerva Art Academy.

We were greeted by José de Lange, the exhibition’s organiser, who explained the week’s structure to us. The week had taken the form of a series of lectures and workshops, after which the students worked on projects in groups under the guidance of a project supervisor. It took only a brief conversation with De Lange to reveal her fascination with the Anthropocene. She argued that we, the human race, are at turning point in terms of our relationship with the planet: we can either keep doing what we’ve always done or start looking for new solutions. In many ways, the Minerva Art Academy’s project was a process of acknowledging the problem and looking for such solutions. “The Anthropocene,” said De Lange, “is inside all of us.”

Innovation for Groningen
One of the projects that strived most for innovation was No Guts No Glory: A Delta Plan for Groningen, led by designer Renate Boere. The province of Groningen suffers from earthquakes caused by fracking. Houses are falling apart but the government has not yet taken sufficient measures. No Guts No Glory presents creative solutions from students for this problem, such as filling the gaps in houses with chewing gum or building houses on springs. The ideas are collected as drawings in the form of a 200-page book, which the project’s participants try to send to as many politicians as possible, wrapped in paper that has also been designed by the students. Like the abandoned nuclear plant that was turned into an amusement park, as mentioned by Anna Volkmar in “Ironic Encounters in the Anthropocene,” in Frame 29.2, these creative ways of dealing with the negative consequences of human activity add a constructive voice to the Anthropocene debate.

Human Traces in a Human Environment
Other projects focused less on finding solutions to the damage we do to the Earth and more on highlighting the nuances and intricacies of our relationship with it. Several of the students felt the traces we leave on the planet as at the heart of the Anthropocene. For instance, one group of students collected abandoned bicycle parts found on the streets of Groningen. For the exhibition, they had brought these parts together, and suspended on string the parts formed the shape of a new bike floating in space. “Bikes are better for the environment than cars,” one of the students told us, “but they still leave traces all over the city.” Interestingly the students suggested that the metal parts of the bike were the hardest to find because they were normally recycled: proof that some human effort is being made to clear away such traces.

For another project, led by teacher and artist Pol Taverne, the students were inspired by a walk through the Wadden Sea area in which they collected natural materials. This was followed by a print workshop in which the students produced prints based on their findings. When we spoke to her, Taverne pointed to the artificiality of this exercise: the cliché of going back to nature for inspiration. She suggested that the project subverted the dominant idea that all human traces left on the planet are necessarily negative, blurring the boundaries between human artifice and the natural world.

The (A)politics of Art
Throughout our interviews, teachers and students alike stressed either the political or apolitical aspects of their projects. De Lange argued that we are at a turning point and need to start looking forward instead of backward. However, she also asked whether it is fair to ask this generation of artists to solve the mess they have not created. Artist and project leader Marko Lulic also felt that asking the students to change the world in three days would put far too much pressure on them. Professor Ann-Sophie Lehmann, on the other hand, took a much stronger stance: “We have to take responsibility,” she stated, even though, she added, at times that might feel uncomfortable. Some of the students certainly shared this opinion, as can be seen from the project No Guts No Glory. Marko Lulic said that many of the projects were much more political than he had expected, although he also stated: “There is, of course, no art that isn’t political.” Although art can be political to different extents, he argued, even claiming to be apolitical is a political decision: “Like science, art is not neutral.”

Art and Academia
Another recurring theme in our interviews revolved around the difference in approaches to the Anthropocene between artists and academics. De Lange was emphatic on the extent to which artists look at an issue from “all angles,” in constant dialogue with each other, united by their curiosity and unlikely to find a single answer. American literary scholar Cary Wolfe, whom Frame interviewed for their Anthropocene issue, took a similar stance: “I think, as I argued in What Is Posthumanism?, that art is an absolutely crucial part of this conversation. And it’s crucial because the medium that I work in, compared to the media that artists work in, is a very impoverished medium: it’s words, it’s texts. For artists, the value of art, or one of the values of art in these conversations, is that art can engage in “non-propositional conceptualization” of problems, in ways that are not limited by the textual medium, and that are not limited by the logical form of argumentation and so on.” Our interviewees confirmed this belief, insisting on art’s ability to show us obscurities and subjectivities in a way that writing is perhaps less able to, bound as it is by definition and the structures of language.

Despite having only discussed a fraction of the creative artworks and conversations we encountered at the Minerva Art Academy, it is clear that the idea of the Anthropocene has spread out of university lecture halls and is being used in ways that go beyond the imagination of anyone but an artist. Although it is unreasonable to look to artists to come up with solutions for environmental issues that have developed over decades, if we can find people willing to take the responsibility, create awareness, and come up with solutions, sometimes idealistic, sometimes practical, we will be very lucky. And in many respects Minerva’s Anthropocene week did just this – confusing, extending and bringing new questions and perspectives to our own conception of the Anthropocene – demanding attention on an urgent situation that is not about to disappear.