- Around the World in 143 DaysTimes at the Scale of the Anthropocene
Where does the time-honored form of a handwritten, postbox posted, fossil fuel–transported chain mail letter sit in today’s world? This question succinctly frames an experimental art project conducted by the four authors of this article, which took the form of a handwritten chain mail letter that circulated around the world. The project addresses the global and geologic consequences of the Anthropocene through the authors’ “local and now” that exist between our personal “here and now” and the “there and then.” The “local and now” refers to our immediate environment and the priorities established by its circumscribed or limited focus; “here and now” refers to immediate subjective experience; and “there and then” refers to events or processes of which we may know but of which we have no direct experience. These impressions of the personal home environment were then discussed in view of the authors’ developing perception of space and time in the context of rapid systemic global changes.
We all live on different timescales in our everyday lives, where we are surrounded by technological as well as social structures from different time periods. Long and short processes carry on in the environment around us as well as in our bodies. To observe and think about those processes may give us the opportunity to understand the Anthropocene [End Page 39] better, as well as help us gain new perspectives for our research in the environmental humanities. This project’s main concern was to reflect on the long, wide, and multifactorial processes involved in environmental change, in a way that resonates with the authors’ personal experience. It aimed to show the links and threads that connect the “here-now” of everyday life with the “then-there” that is often perceived as the arena for global anthropogenic climate change.
To explore these questions, it was important to engage with the material conditions of communication in the Anthropocene and to explore how they influence our perception of space and time. To this end, the authors exchanged physical letters through snail mail that took the form of handwritten text, photographs, and drawn images. These exchanges were interwoven with parallel email discussions. All these elements were then displayed publicly in Tumblr, a widely popular social networking website.
Thus, the project was twofold: (1) to explore different scales of time and space in our own personal narratives and (2) to consider the way these narratives are embedded in the technologies we use to mediate our narratives. In the end, the project gained an additional dimension, as it also questioned the boundaries between personal and professional writing and between hybridized private media made social media and social media that reflects on private media.
This project originated at the Anthropocene Campus at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, in November 2014. The authors— an environmental historian (Åberg), comics scholar (Almeida), artist (Wodak), and geologist (Kirstein)— met one another during this nine-day workshop. The campus involved early-career researchers participating in symposiums facilitated by leaders from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, art, and design. Throughout the entire event, discussions circled around issues of narratives and representations of the Anthropocene. One aspect of this conversation is the focus of this experimental project and article: how temporal and spatial scales play out in the context of the Anthropocene. However, the mere size of the Anthropocene concept can easily become too large to grasp. [End Page 40]
Thus, before detailing the approach undertaken for the project, it is necessary to frame emerging definitions of what the Anthropocene refers to, as this in turn informs the nature and orientation of the chain mail project. The term Anthropocene, first proposed by Paul Crutzen, designates a geological epoch that is empirically distinguishable from the previous one, the Holocene.1 It can be defined as a period in which several major Earth systems— including climatic, biological, geological, and hydrological cycles— have become profoundly affected by economic and technological systems.2
There have been wide debates over the term Anthropocene. There is still no scientific...