Afterimage's recent relaunch with the University of California Press integrates the journal's legacy of contemporary arts and media criticism with an expanded commitment to scholarly essays. As part of this mission, the editorial team wanted to approach the journal as a unique venue for academics to respond to urgent issues by more regularly publishing curated forums called dossiers. For the current dossier, we decided to tackle the most profound challenge we face on a global scale: environmental disaster. We also believe that any consideration of the contemporary—Afterimage's focus—must grapple with our current and escalating climate crisis. We invited contributors with this prompt:
With weekly, sometimes even daily, reporting on super storms, heat records, and ice melt that have accelerated far beyond climate science projections, there is a global sense that devastating climate change has arrived. For many, it was already here. Scholars in the humanities have importantly considered how to think through, historicize, visualize, and criticize the Anthropocene, but what do we do now? Does our work change as the climate crisis accelerates? How does one respond to the current moment—and must one always be in reactive mode? Can we rigorously imagine the future? What can we learn from historical precedents and/or from art and media? What are we overlooking? How do our disciplines, our research, our pedagogy, and our institutions need to adapt? What works exemplify the path forward? We invite you to respond to any of these or other questions in the form you find most compelling—with a think piece, a mini-case study, a manifesto, etc. Your focus may be on art and/or media or not at all, as you see fit. Recognizing that all of our invited respondents have already explored some of these questions in their published work, and that recent edited volumes have tended to approach these issues in much larger fora, we are hoping to assemble a tightly focused collection of pithy texts that take stock of our perilous present. Mostly, we want to learn from you and from the range of responses to this forum.
The next three responses look to images rooted in localized sites. Ila Sheren explores the recurrent eco-art strategy of aestheticizing the “toxic sublime” by turning away from the othering practices of white male Global North visual artists toward Indian artist Vibha Galhotra, whose video Manthan understands the “paradox” that the Yumana River is at once “a holy entity” and “a dumping ground for toxic material.” As Sheren argues, “The questions of identity and representation are … integral to the genre of eco art and depictions of climate crisis.” From the toxic sublime to the sublime of ice melt, Amanda Boetzkes unpacks the complex implications of a viral image of a dog sled team trudging through glacier ice melt on the coast of Greenland. The image became iconic of the large-scale melt events caused by global warming. Yet, Boetzkes wages a criticism of the “visual conventions of apocalypse” that animate this image and its use, suggesting that the image obscures contemporary Indigenous perspectives on ecological crisis as an extension of settler conquest. Jens Baumgarten examines fraught political efforts to change the public image of São Paulo, Brazil—such as attempting to eliminate the “visual pollution” of advertising while not fixing the actual pollution of waterways, and to encourage luxury mixed-use development and landscaping projects that render both poverty and toxic landscapes out of view. Calling for a reconceptualization of art history, Baumgarten asserts that the discipline has different stakes in different local contexts.
Our final two contributions address everyday and alternative practices that gesture toward possible ways forward. Laura U. Marks alerts us to the immense and growing carbon footprint of streaming media and cloud storage. Marks urges the switch to renewable energy sources, but also more imaginatively reminds us that “we have abundant aesthetic models for media works that celebrate low technology, slow speed, and small files.” Sugata Ray looks to a Palestinian farm that persists in a space in between an agrochemical factory and the militarized Barrier Wall; this resistant site “embodies the possibility of a ‘politics of eating’” and “the materialization of an ecoaesthetics.” Ray affirms, as do our other authors, that the environmental crisis is rooted in human politics but also intimates solutions such as cultivating self-sufficient and sustainable permacultures.
When we drafted the prompt, we were watching daily reports of catastrophic fires in the Amazon. As we received the responses, we were witnessing the apparent extinction event of the bushfires in Australia, which reportedly killed more than one billion animals and likely destroyed the ecosystems for many survivors. While this dossier has been in production, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused global and profound loss of human life on a scale we have not seen in a century. With so much retail and industry on an emergency hiatus and citizens ordered to stay home, reductions in pollution have been demonstrable, and wildlife have been seen reclaiming developed lands; concurrently, the US has undone emissions standards as the fossil fuel industries reel, which mitigates hope that the current situation will be more than a temporary, tragic respite from longer-term anthropogenic environmental impact. Future ecological crises will inevitably surge, producing and circulating innumerable additional images and sparking further waves of aesthetic responses. That our prompt generated such a range of perspectives speaks to the complexity of the climate crisis and the range of its mediations, from art projects and feature films to photojournalism and viral images.