Anthropocene reveals the scale of Earth’s existential crisis

Part AGO show and part documentary, Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier's project captures the landscapes we destroy in order to live

Anthropocene by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West). $16.50-$25. Opens Friday (September 28), runs to January 6. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch opens in cinemas on Friday (September 29). See film review.

Can a geological epoch become a household word?

For the last 12,000-odd years, the earth enjoyed the Holocene, the period of stable climate since the end of the last ice age. Nearly two decades ago, scientists popularized the term Anthropocene to describe the new period we are believed to have moved into – one in which human impact on earth has overtaken all other forces shaping the future.

“The word Anthropocene has been around for a while, but I thought, ‘What about trying to make that word enter the vernacular?’” says director Jennifer Baichwal during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. “Most people have no idea the scale of our impact. We are now a greater force than any other natural process, like earthquakes and tsunamis. We’re at a precipice here.”

Baichwal was at TIFF for the world premiere of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, her third documentary collaboration with filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier and photographer Edward Burtynsky following Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013). The film also complements concurrent art exhibitions opening this week at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

The shows include large-format photographs of industrial landscapes – for which Burtynsky is best known – as juxtaposed with film loops and augmented reality sculptures. The five-year-long project took the trio to Kenya’s Dandora landfill, Italy’s Carrara marble quarry, smelting operations in Russia, tailing ponds in Florida and a mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where automaker Tesla sources lithium for its electric car batteries.

Getting audiences to grasp the existential implications of climate change – one of the topics covered in the film, along with technofossils (congealed human-made materials), terraforming (altering the atmosphere) and species  extinction – is a challenge many documentary filmmakers have taken up. It’s often dismissed as a “ratings killer,” but environmental journalists have countered it’s not the topic that’s unpopular but the way it is presented.

The Anthropocene team avoids didactic, doom-and-gloom narratives – the film features minimal voice-over by actor Alicia Vikander – in favour of a more meditative aesthetic that lingers on details and patterns. The approach grew out of the challenge of Manufactured Landscapes, which was about translating Burtynsky’s work to cinema and capturing scale. Watermark continued that idea while following the photographer as he worked on a book. Anthropocene is not about photographs or the act of creating work – the artist and the filmmakers have evolved into equal collaborators, sharing the same artistic aims.

“We are trying to take people to places they are connected to but would never normally see,” says Baichwal. “To convey the scale of [human] impact by going to these places and witnessing rather than preaching.”

“It’s a very experiential process that maybe replicates the kind of dialogue you’d have if you were standing in front of an Ed Burtynsky photograph,” adds de Pencier. “You have to bring a lot of yourself to it. You’re not passively bombarded with information in our film.”

As other documentarians have done with image-driven films about climate change, the Anthropocene directors have upped the ante technology-wise and in terms of locations. For this project, they went to the most overwhelming places – the biggest open-pit mine in Germany and the largest coloured metal mine in the world, for example.


Samuel Engelking

Edward Burtynsky (left), Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier discuss their Anthropocene exhibition and documentary at the AGO.

The doc opens and closes in Nairobi, Kenya, where anti-poaching activists and government officials, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, gathered in 2016 to set fire to $172 million worth of illegally obtained ivory tusks and horns arranged into 12 towers. It could not be a more perfect Burtynsky subject, full of strange symmetry and repetition. By bookending the film with the tusk burning, the filmmakers subtly suggest urgent and bold grassroots and government action is needed to reverse the effects of climate change.

The AGO show extends that idea of scale further by recreating the largest tusk pile – the one set alight by Kenyatta – using augmented reality. After downloading an app, visitors to the gallery can point their phone at a cube bearing black-and-white images and a digital “sculpture” of the pile appears on their screen. Behind it is a video of the original pile on fire.

“We wanted to have this cross-pollination of all these mediums,” says Baichwal, “to expand your consciousness and understanding of what the Anthropocene means.”

But as climate change and extinction grow more dire, what are the ethics of photographing locations that are causing destruction and peril?

Burtynsky has been accused in the past of “aestheticizing” tragedy by turning ugly industrial sites into beautiful photos. Similar debates have revolved around movie violence and film recreations of genocide. But as climate change displaces vulnerable populations, how should makers of “visually stunning” environmental films approach their subjects?

“If we go back to Shakespeare and Richard III and Macbeth, those are terrible stories of inter-familial deceit and murder and treachery, all cloaked in beautiful prose,” Burtynsky says. “No one’s ever questioned Shakespeare and whether those words be so beautifully crafted to tell such a terrible story.”

However, he concedes still photography “takes a larger ethical hit as to whether you’re aestheticizing horror” than other mediums.

“What we’re showing is actually business as usual. I can focus the lens on the city or I can focus it on all the stuff that makes the city and where it comes from. There is an equivalence there that I think is important. And it isn’t horror – it’s how we get to live the lives we have. If you think of a city as a creation, there’s a greater act of destruction for this act of creation.

“We need to re-embrace the wastelands as a human landscape,” he adds. “Making them visually compelling so you don’t avert your eyes when you look is one of the key things in reconnecting us with them. It’s not hard make an ugly picture of these places, I can assure you.”

But context is also key.

“I always say one of my images alone at an art fair is a dangerous thing,” he continues. “If you don’t know anything about me, you could make a mistake that I’m aestheticizing. In aggregate, these images tell the story.”

“To me, the ethics is much more a question of how we engage in these contexts,” Baichwal interjects, adding the production was carbon offset. “The way we go into these places is the most important aspect of our filmmaking practice. It’s not about going in with an assumption that we know what we’re going to show, or how we’re going to show it, or the way we’re going to engage with the people who are living in those contexts. The revelation in those places comes very much from a perspective of total humility.”

Anthropocene has a message and an underlying urgency, but it’s art – not activism. Still, Burtynsky hopes the multi-pronged project will affect the way people talk about environmental change – and the role art can play in that. By presenting the images in a non-polarizing way, he also hopes that urgency will be felt across the political spectrum.

“I’d get in front of an audience and say, ‘Who’s heard the word Anthropocene?’ Maybe 10-15 per cent would put a hand up,” he says. “When we talked about it at the AGO, they said ‘Well, [Yayoi] Kusama wasn’t a well known artist now you can ask almost anyone in Toronto who she is and they’ll know.’ That gave me hope!

“The time is now to raise the consciousness that there is an issue at hand. If we don’t make the right choices, then we only have ourselves to blame.”    


Samuel Engelking

Most of the Burtynsky photos in the AGO’s Anthropocene exhibition are 58.5 x 78 inches and are juxtaposed with video monitors displaying films shot by Baichwal and de Pencier.


Samuel Engelking

The Anthropocene artists used augmented reality as another means of expressing the scale of human impact on Earth.


Samuel Engelking

A cube displaying photos of a pile of ivory tusks and horns triggers an augmented reality sculpture. | @kevinritchie

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