IN­TER­VIEW The famed artists be­hind The

An­thro­pocene Project on de­pict­ing hu­mankind’s in­flu­ence on the Earth


The renowned artists dis­cuss The An­thro­pocene Project, which looks at hu­man im­pact on the Earth’s ge­ol­ogy

IIs it pos­si­ble that peo­ple now have more in­flu­ence over the Earth than all its nat­u­ral sys­tems com­bined? Some sci­en­tists who study the planet’s ge­o­log­i­cal epochs are sure it is. They call this new era of hu­man im­pact the An­thro­pocene. It’s the sub­ject of a new mul­ti­me­dia project by three renowned Cana­dian artists: pho­tog­ra­pher Ed­ward Bur­tyn­sky and doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers Jen­nifer Baich­wal and Nicholas de Pencier. (The trio pre­vi­ously col­lab­o­rated on two doc­u­men­taries, 2006’s Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes and 2013’s Water­mark.) The An­thro­pocene Project in­cludes mul­ti­me­dia gallery ex­hibits at Toronto’s Art Gallery of On­tario and Ot­tawa’s Na­tional Gallery of Canada, a doc­u­men­tary film and a book, all of which fol­low a group of sci­en­tists ded­i­cated to defin­ing this ge­o­log­i­cal pe­riod. The artists hope that by en­gag­ing peo­ple in these forms, they can make them think more deeply about the planet’s fu­ture. On the ori­gins of The An­thro­pocene Project EB: When we heard about the word an­thro­pocene, it was newly minted, and it seemed to sum up a lot of the ideas that we were vis­ually grap­pling with through film and with stills. In short, this epoch is now the creation of one species — hu­mankind. This project was about work­ing with sci­en­tists to un­der­stand how they are look­ing at this change, and how we can vis­ually tell that story through film, stills and aug­mented re­al­ity.

On the project’s goals

NDP: Our hope is that this work in­vites peo­ple to form their own opin­ions, to en­gage with it in a sub­jec­tive way, and that ev­ery­one will think about our lit­tle blip of ex­is­tence in ge­o­log­i­cal time. If you can take some­one to a place vis­cer­ally so they can feel like they’ve been there — whether it’s sit­ting in a the­atre or mu­seum, look­ing at a still in a book or hav­ing an amaz­ing new tech­nol­ogy ex­pe­ri­ence — it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of learn­ing than text­book learn­ing. Hope­fully, it’s a deeper learn­ing that can ef­fect change.

On the doc­u­men­tary film

JB: What we’ve done in 13 years of col­lab­o­ra­tion is try to have this con­stant dia­lec­tic of scale and de­tail. We in­cluded the big pic­ture that Ed is so good at, and then the lit­tle nar­ra­tives that hap­pen within that big pic­ture that al­low you to em­pa­thet­i­cally con­nect to what is hap­pen­ing with­out be­ing told what you are look­ing at. It’s a non­tra­di­tional way of do­ing it. Doc­u­men­tary is of­ten much more jour­nal­is­tic and straight ahead; we’ve tried to re­ally open up film so that it is as ex­pe­ri­en­tial as per­haps stand­ing in front of one of the pho­to­graphs.

On cre­at­ing aug­mented re­al­ity sculp­tures

EB: We took thou­sands of im­ages of a tusk pile that burned in Kenya in 2016 and then used soft­ware to re­con­struct it. You can use a tablet, your smart­phone or, even­tu­ally, a head­set that will al­low you to see mixed re­al­ity, and within a mu­seum space you can walk around this tusk pile.

JB: We also have a vir­tual sculp­ture of Su­dan, the last male north­ern white rhino. He died in 2018, and will be stand­ing in the mid­dle of the mu­seum. You’ll be able to be with this crea­ture that peo­ple have driven to ex­tinc­tion.

On a Cana­dian con­nec­tion

EB: We be­came very in­ter­ested in the de­for­esta­tion as­pect of what we do as Cana­di­ans, and par­tic­u­larly in an­cient forests. We’ve turned this di­verse, rich world into a much more nar­row one that can’t sus­tain the same life sys­tems.

JB: Is it like The Lo­rax, you stop when they are all gone? To me, we need to ex­tend the idea of value to en­com­pass what the ecosys­tem of an an­cient for­est does, what a coral ecosys­tem does, what the Ama­zon This im­age of burn­ing tusks in Kenya was one of thou­sands used to cre­ate one of the project’s aug­mented re­al­ity sculp­tures.

does. It’s think­ing about the planet as one sys­tem and how we af­fect it.

Watch a video ver­sion of this abridged in­ter­view at can­­thro­pocene.

The An­thro­pocene Project.

Ed­ward Bur­tyn­sky (left), Jen­nifer Baich­wal and Nicholas de Pencier, the three Cana­dian artists be­hind

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