Down to Earth

A new multi-me­dia art pro­ject seeks to demon­strate the hu­man fac­tor in global en­vi­ron­men­tal de­cline

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - Text Nathalie Atkin­son Pho­tog­ra­phy Ed­ward Bur­tyn­sky Baich­wal

Ed­ward Bur­tyn­sky’s new col­lab­o­ra­tion demon­strates the hu­man fac­tor in global en­vi­ron­men­tal de­cline

tHERE’S A COUNT­DOWN CLOCK on a com­puter in pho­tog­ra­pher Ed­ward Bur­tyn­sky’s Toronto stu­dio. It ticks the min­utes and sec­onds un­til the Septem­ber un­veil­ing of An­thro­pocene, the mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Bur­tyn­sky (right) and film­mak­ers Jen­nifer (left) and Ni­cholas de Pencier (mid­dle). Be­tween them, they’ve made doc­u­men­taries about The Trag­i­cally Hip’s last tour (Long Time Run­ning), Paul Bowles ( Let It Come Down) and debt (based on Pay­back, the Mar­garet At­wood lec­ture) and Bur­tyn­sky is renowned for his awe-in­spir­ing and of­ten ab­stract im­ages that doc­u­ment sites where na­ture meets in­dus­try.

Coined in 2000 by No­bel Prizewin­ning at­mo­spheric chemist Paul Crutzen, an­thro­pocene is the new pro­posed name for our present ge­o­log­i­cal epoch by the An­thro­pocene Work­ing Group (AWC), an in­ter­na­tional group of sci­en­tists ad­vo­cat­ing to of­fi­cially change it from the cur­rent des­ig­na­tion, the holocene. The new pre­fix comes from an­thro­pos (the Greek word for hu­man) be­cause it would dis­tin­guish it in the for­mal ge­o­log­i­cal time scale from the last ma­jor ice age and em­pha­size the un­de­ni­able enor­mity of be­ing the first species with a planet-scale in­flu­ence.

As ex­plored by Bur­tyn­sky, Baich­wal and de Pencier, the An­thro­pocene pro­ject com­bines art, film, vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity with sci­en­tific re­search to in­ves­ti­gate the hu­man in­flu­ence on the state and fu­ture of the planet with dy­namic, thought-pro­vok­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of some of the planet’s most dif­fi­cult lo­ca­tions. The ex­hi­bi­tion por­tion, which in­cludes 30 large-for­mat Bur­tyn­sky pho­to­graphs and new high­res­o­lu­tion mu­rals on a mas­sive scale, will si­mul­ta­ne­ously open at the Art Gallery of On­tario and the Na­tional Gallery of Canada in Ot­tawa (on Sept. 28) be­fore trav­el­ling to Bologna next spring.

Care­fully packed art car­tons lean along one wall on the eve of ex­hi­bi­tion as Bur­tyn­sky over­sees last de­tails and flips through a proof of the An­thro­pocene book, which con­tains a new suite of orig­i­nal po­ems by Mar­garet At­wood (com­ing in Novem­ber). At their mid­town stu­dio, film­mak­ers Baich­wal and de Pencier have been work­ing on sound and colour cor­rec­tion for the An­thro­pocene fea­ture documentary ahead of its world pre­miere at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val (it will then open

in theatres across Canada on Oct. 5), but the trio take a break from fi­nal prepa­ra­tions and gather around the bright red desk in Bur­tyn­sky’s of­fice to talk about how the var­i­ous me­dia are all part of a piece.

“They’re all ways of try­ing to ex­tend the ex­pe­ri­en­tial, non-di­dac­tic na­ture of the pho­to­graphs and the film,” Baich­wal adds. “They’re meant to be an ex­pe­ri­ence where we take you to places that are the­mat­i­cally im­por­tant that are part of that big­ger equa­tion.”

Be­tween the cli­mate cri­sis, al­tered en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions and im­mi­nent threat of mass ex­tinc­tion it cov­ers, the count­down clock could also eas­ily re­fer to the pro­ject’s sub­ject. But it’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal equa­tion where the modus operandi is not fin­ger-wag­ging. “It’s re­ally to get peo­ple to ex­pand their con­scious­ness around this. And to get out­side of the es­tab­lished lines of dis­course that are pretty en­trenched around en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues that be­come po­lit­i­cal,” de Pencier says. An­thro­pocene is less a con­dem­na­tion of hu­mans as a planet-scale dis­rup­tive force than an ex­pe­ri­en­tial call to aware­ness about the long-term cost and con­se­quences.

“One of the key things,” the pho­tog­ra­pher adds, “is that the work moves to­ward be­ing rev­e­la­tory, not ac­cusatory.”

Des­ig­nated mark­ers through­out the gallery spa­ces trig­ger tablet and smart­phone in­stal­la­tions made with pho­togram­me­try (the process of cre­at­ing com­plex di­men­sional aug­mented re­al­ity with spe­cial­ized mea­sure­ment soft­ware) and launched through the win­dow of AR tech­nol­ogy. “With video or with stills, you’re fixed,” Bur­tyn­sky says, “the gaze and the view is fixed. You can move back and forth at a de­tail, pull back or not. But en­gag­ing with an aug­mented re­al­ity piece, you’re the pro­tag­o­nist. It isn’t a fixed frame, and you’re mov­ing through, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it, try­ing to un­der­stand it.”

That in­cludes un­der­stand­ing our role as cat­a­lysts. Schol­ars and sci­en­tists of the AWC put the epoch’s be­gin­ning around 1950. “Ex­actly the boomer gen­er­a­tion,” de Pencier points out. “In the past, start dates have been me­te­ors and ice ages but, for these sci­en­tists, the boomers are the an­thro­pocene gen­er­a­tion.” The idea is that every­thing that we do has now tipped the planet into a place that has no his­tor­i­cal ana­log, Bur­tyn­sky chimes in, “with 2.5 bil­lion peo­ple in 1955 at the peak of the boomer gen­er­a­tion, now we’re al­most at 8 – that’s al­most a bil­lion [more] per decade that’s hap­pened in our lives, so we are the wit­nesses of the great ac­cel­er­a­tion.”

“And the par­tic­i­pants. We’re driv­ing it, and our re-

la­tion­ship with China, we’re driv­ing that,” Baich­wall con­tin­ues. “The pro­ject is a way of mak­ing us aware of those con­nec­tions, how we are all in­te­grated into this.”

Bur­tyn­sky’s de­tailed, large-for­mat aerial views of melt­ing glaciers, oil sands and pol­luted rivers that show im­pact and scale are in pres­ti­gious in­sti­tu­tional col­lec­tions around the world. “But the thing about im­ages is that they’re kind of mute,” Bur­tyn­sky ven­tures, “and they can be mis­in­ter­preted very eas­ily as es­theti­ciz­ing ‘dis­as­ter.’ With Jen’s and Nick’s tal­ents through in­ter­pret­ing one medium – stills – through the medium of film, they were able to ex­tend the con­text of what I was do­ing and re­ally get the viewer to ap­pre­ci­ate it. You never see Made in China in the same way again. I don’t think that re­sponse could have hap­pened with the stills alone.”

He’s talking about their first col­lab­o­ra­tion 13 years ago on Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes (2006) about Bur­tyn­sky’s work in China; next came Wa­ter­mark (2013), the in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed “rhap­sody of en­vi­ron­men­tal hor­ror” (as one critic put it) that won the Rogers Best Cana­dian Film Award.

Work on An­thro­pocene, the fi­nale of this in­for­mal tril­ogy, a cul­mi­na­tion of ca­reer themes, be­gan in 2014. The four-year jour­ney took the team through 20 coun- tries to re­mote places that aren’t likely to be on any­one’s bucket list, from the Berezniki un­der­ground potash mines in the Ural Moun­tains to the lithium evap­o­ra­tion ponds of the Ata­cama desert. The pro­ject is loosely struc­tured by the AWC’s var­i­ous cat­e­gories, and Pencier re­calls how the “war room” in Bur­tyn­sky’s house was cov­ered in im­ages from each re­search cat­e­gory “to see what has the most depth and res­o­nance and vi­su­als.”

Sites like No­rilsk, the closed in­dus­trial city in Rus­sia that was orig­i­nally a gu­lag prison labour camp made the cut. It’s one of the most pol­luted cities on the planet and the world’s largest pro­ducer of pal­la­dium (the rare min­eral used in cell­phones). Lo­cated above the Arc­tic Cir­cle with its per­pet­ual day­light, the quest for softer light meant they had to shoot at 3 a.m. “The weirdness of wan­der­ing around that place in the mid­dle of the night feel­ing like in the mid­dle of the day with no­body around be­cause it was aban­doned,” Baich­wal says, “and get­ting de­tained and fin­ger­printed for talking to women in the cop­per smelter! That kind of stuff was pretty in­cred­i­ble.”

The trio’s past cin­e­matic col­lab­o­ra­tions have made use of the lat­est lens and shoot­ing tech­niques, like drone tech­nol­ogy or gyro-sta­bi­liz­ing Cine­flex cam-

eras; they also ob­tained a pro­to­type of the Google JUMP Odyssey 3-D 360-de­gree vir­tual re­al­ity cam­era sys­tem (with 16 ra­dial cam­eras and stere­oscopy al­go­rithms for im­age stitch­ing). The An­thro­pocene ex­hi­bi­tion ex­tends from the medium of stills fur­ther into what Bur­tyn­sky dubs pho­tog­ra­phy 3.0, or the third di­men­sion, through gi­gapixel es­says and bor­der­less 360-de­gree films that bring the viewer and sub­ject starkly back down to the earth.

“As a medium, film is ex­press­ing scale and time, de­tail in time and be­ing able to have emo­tional in­ter­ac­tion with what you’re look­ing at,” Baich­wal says. The VR/AR ex­ten­sions are im­mer­sive in another par­tic­u­lar way that con­tex­tu­al­izes scale and de­tail. “You can be look­ing at a huge city of La­gos on the mu­rals, and then you’re on the street walk­ing right there and you feel it in a dif­fer­ent way.”

“We did a pho­togram­me­try cap­ture,” Bur­tyn­sky en­thuses about one mem­o­rable shoot map­ping an un­der­ground mine in Siberia that gen­er­ated more than 20,000 high-res­o­lu­tion im­ages. Once stitched to­gether in a vir­tual world, they of­fer a com­plete filmic recre­ation of the mine. “It’s not a built world. It’s not syn­thetic,” de Pencier adds. “It is ac­tu­ally what was there.” Sim­i­larly, a de­tailed un­der­wa­ter coral wall shoot in Ko­modo, In­done­sia, trig­gers video ex­ten­sions of footage that de Pencier shot on Aus­tralia’s Great Bar­rier Reef, “that take you into another artis­tic read­ing of it.” Coral has been around for 45 mil­lion years yet could be ex­tinct by the end of the 21st cen­tury – rel­a­tively speak­ing in the ge­o­log­i­cal time scale, they add. Like the blink of an eye in VR gog­gles.

The ex­hi­bi­tions and documentary may in­tro­duce the gen­eral pub­lic to terms like an­thro­tur­ba­tion (dis­tur­bance of sed­i­men­tary de­posits by hu­mans) and tech­no­fos­sils (hu­man-made ob­jects like plas­tic that are re­sistent to de­cay and will be­come fu­ture trace fos­sils). And a part­ner­ship with the Royal Cana­dian Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety boasts an in­ter­ac­tive web­site and ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram ( thean­thro­ But above all they want the viewer’s re­sponse to An­thro­pocene to be vis­ceral. “If we’ve suc­ceeded,” de Pencier says, “it should be a more emo­tional than in­tel­lec­tual ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“Es­pe­cially in a sec­u­lar so­ci­ety, there aren’t so many mo­ments for that big re­flec­tion,” he adds. “That’s one of the hopes for the pro­ject: that peo­ple take a step back and think plan­e­tary scale and ge­o­logic time. And that there’s some shift, some re­minder or recog­ni­tion that comes from that per­spec­tive.”

Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, West­phalia, Ger­many, 2015

Phos­phor Tail­ings Pond #4, Near Lake­land, Fla., 2012

Lithium Mines #1, Salt Flats, Ata­cama Desert, Chile, 2017

Saw Mills #1, La­gos, Nige­ria 2016

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