hans_ulrich_obrist's picture
Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London; Editor: A Brief History of Curating; Formulas for Now; Co-author (with Rem Koolhas), Project Japan: Metabolism Talks
A Call To Action

The publication in 2015 of a new paper from Leicester University, "The Anthropocene Biosphere," provides more evidence that the changes wrought upon the climate by human civilization are set to bring down a sixth mass extinction. According to the paper’s co-author, geologist Peter Haff, we have already entered a period of fundamental changes to the planetary system that may continue to change the world beyond our imagination, a fear echoed by Adelaide University’s John Long in the New Scientist last month. All of us can provide anecdotal evidence of the shifts that are changing our environment. Today I received a call from a friend in Engadin, Switzerland, where Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In late December, at an altitude of 2,000 metres, there is no snow. In Hyde Park, the daffodils are in bloom.

As the artist, environmentalist, and political activist Gustav Metzger has been saying for many years, it is no longer enough just to talk about ecology, we need to create calls to action. We must consider the potential for individual and collective agency to effect changes in our behavior, and to develop adaptive strategies for the Anthropocene age. To quote Gustav Metzger, “we need to take a stand against the ongoing erasure of species, even though there is little chance of ultimate success. It is our privilege and our duty to be at the forefront of the struggle.” We must fight against the disappearances of species, languages and entire cultures. We must battle against the homogenization of our world. We must understand this news as part of a broader continuum. The French historian Fernand Braudel advocated the “longue durée,” a view of history which relegates the historical importance of “news events” beneath slow shifts, and occasional crises, in the grand underlying structures of human civilisation. Extinction is a phenomenon that belongs to the “longue durée” of the Anthropocene, the symptoms of which we are now beginning to experience as news. By connecting the news to the “longue durée” we can formulate strategies to transform our future and avert the most catastrophic scenarios of extinction. By understanding the news we can act upon it.

Art is one means by which we reimagine existing paradigms to accommodate new discoveries, the thread linking news events to the “longue durée.” Art is also a means of pooling knowledge and it is, like literature, news that STAYS news. It is the means by which we adjust existing paradigms to accommodate new discoveries, the thread connecting the now to the past and to the future.

When Shelley stated that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” he meant something like this: that writers and artists have the capacity to reimagine news in ways that change the way that we perceive the world, the way we think and act.

Among my great inspirations is Félix Fénéon, a fin-de-siècle French editor (and the first publisher of James Joyce in France), art critic (he discovered and popularised the work of Georges Seurat), and anarchist (put on trial, he escaped prosecution after famously directing a series of barbs at the prosecutor and judge, to the jury’s great entertainment). Félix Fénéon, was a master of transformation. He transformed the news into world literature via his series of prose poems: In 1906 he was the anonymous author of a series of three-line news items published in the Paris newspaper Le Matin, which have since become famous. These brief reports adapt stories of contemporary murder and misery into prose poems that will last forever.

Through their adaptation of the literary and rhetorical devices of rhythm, prosody, and hard-edged juxtaposition, Fénéon transforms minor news items—by themselves petty, random, isolated—into history.

Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet transformed the Copernican breakthroughs of Einstein and Freud into fiction. By translating events which are ephemeral and local in their initial impact into that which is universal and enduring, we can make news into culture. John Dos Passos gave lasting form to events that seemed characterised by their fleeting immediacy. In his U.S.A. trilogy Dos Passos pioneered new styles of writing that sought to capture the experience of living in a society overwhelmed by the proliferation of print media, television and advertising. In his “newsreel” sections, the author collages newspaper clippings and popular song lyrics; elsewhere he pursues his experiments in what he called the “camera eye,” a stream of consciousness technique that attempts to replicate the unfiltered receptivity of the camera, which makes no distinction between what is important and what is not. Later this material is transformed into stories. The film-maker Adam Curtis told me that the U.S.A. trilogy identifies “the great dialectic of our time, which is between individual experience and how those fragments get turned into stories... It’s like when you live through an experience you have no idea what it means. It’s only later, when you go home, that you reassemble those fragments into a story. And that’s what individuals do, and it’s what societies do. It’s what the great novelists of the nineteenth century, like Tolstoy, wrote about. They wrote about that tension between how an individual tells the story of an event themselves, out of fragments, and how society then does it.”

The Lebanese-American poet, painter, novelist, urbanist, architect and activist Etel Adnan speaks about the process of transformation as the “beautiful combination of a substratum that is permanent and something that changes on top. There is a notion of continuity in transformation.” In Etel Adnan’s telling, transformation describes the relationship between the “longue durée” of history, news events in the present, and action that can transform the future. Adnan shows us how dialogue can produce new strategies that can preserve difference, can help to act against extinction, while also acknowledging that change is inevitable. If we are to develop radical new strategies to address one of the most important issue of our time, then it is urgent now that we go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge between disciplines. If we do not pool knowledge, then the news is just news: each new year will bring reports of another dead language, another species lost. While writing this text I received an email in the form of a poem from Etel Adnan which expresses this beautifully:

Where do the news go? 

News go where angels go
News go into the waste-baskets of foreign embassies
News go in the cosmic garbage that the universe has become
News go (unfortunately) into our heads

Etel Adnan