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 cangeo.ca/nd18/anthropocene.
Edward Burtynsky (left), Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, the three Canadian artists behind