Many texts on visual cultural today tend to savour the Anthropocene topic. Questions of guilt and responsibility for ‘human activities’, sweeping we-statements and apocalyptic future assumptions are the boilerplate topics for conformist academics to discuss. However frequently these articles appear and contaminate already complex discourse, it is still possible to chance upon invigorating credible research, and Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today by T. J. Demos stands out from them. Part of his long-term research project on visual culture politics in the age of a ‘massive transformation’, this piece of writing is not an easy read for two reasons: the density of multidisciplinary theory which informs this text, and the number of human rights violation cases which the reader can not help but face.
This concise study of ecological power relations is divided into five chapters mimicking the structure of an extended essay more than a book. Each section aims to decolonize the mainstream media image of Anthropocene rhetoric, whose ‘disorienting perspective, cropped and at angle, produces the sensation of abstract visual pleasure’, and calls attention to its invisible side, including class and race oppression, that enables the systemic functioning of the Capitalocene. In this regard, Demos emphasized the value of the art projects that dismantle the spectacular aesthetics of a disaster and an attempt to explore artistic strategies of resistance, which he claims to be the focus of this book.
However, Demos keeps his revealing-the-truth tone of a detective and concentrates on the critical analysis of the socio-political aspects behind the Anthropocene visuality. He delves into a detailed explanation of environmental crimes, such as the BP oil spill in 2010 and the Shell oil rig drill campaign in the Arctic Ocean, to point at the elite minorities running global corporations, like Microsoft, for being the real culprits of these devastating changes. He draws lines between profit-making interests and ignorant natural resource exploitation, and highlights political games being at the core of greenwashing campaigns serving the global economy.
In relation to the global scale, Demos considers the shift from photography to remote sensing technology and mapping significant for visual language transformation. As an example, he depicts a photo series, Oil (1999—2010), by Edward Burtynsky, who constantly uses aerial perspective and the elevated horizon line to dramatically articulate the speculative beauty of industrial landscapes and abandoned housing areas. Bright colours, close-ups, clarity, geometric patterns, and repetition satisfy the viewer, but fail to recognise the real nature of the scenes of devastation which is proved by several other examples mentioned by Demos.
Contrary to this horror aestheticization, he addresses the photo book Petrochemical America (2012) by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff, where the artists tell the story of Mississippi River pollution through collages. They combine the photos of the river and its surroundings with the yellow drawings of non-human species which used to inhabit these spaces. The style of the former is quite different from what Burtynsky suggests. These foggy grey images have no contours and sharp lines, and their perspective is proportional to human scale. Accompanied by diagrams denoting the places of chemical production along the Mississippi, the collages ‘provide a stunning analysis of the industrial, economic, sociopolitical, and ecological conditions that frame the “petrolized” landscapes’, as Demos puts it. For him, this staging of the invisible through mixed media is one possible way of approaching this topic in visual culture.
Sadly for the reader, Demos briefly introduces another form of creative methodology for disrupting the Anthropocene ideas in the very end of the book. He proposes ‘artistic-activist practice […] that insists on embedding experimental visual culture within social engagements and collaborative social movements’. That said, he later describes three art projects which seek to establish nonviolent transnational and interspecies set of networks fighting for a peaceful and inequality acknowledging future. Captivated by this mission, Demos sounds indifferent to the specific characteristics of the video and installation medium in a collaborative piece Forest Law (2014) by Ursula Bienmann and Paulo Travares, omits the visual study of three different political acts brought together in History of Others (2013 — ongoing) by Terike Haapoja and Laura Gustafsson, and only outlines activist potential of Climate Games (2015—2016) – an open source app launched by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. One might argue that the visual aspect of such projects is secondary to their intention and will probably be right, however Demos lets one incoherency to appear in his research: he does not substantiate his political position with coherent visual culture cases and instead accentuates its practical output.