By Chrissy Steinbock

Anthropocene, a new multimedia exhibition exploring the permanent impact of human activity on the planet, opens at the National Gallery on Sept. 26.

The exhibition features new works from photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, an award-winning collective known for documenting global industrial landscapes through imagery as haunting and provocative as it is beautiful.

Anthropocene is the proposed current geological age, “in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change.”

The exhibition features photography, wall-sized murals with embedded films, as well as augmented reality installations with 3D imagery and video triggered by a specially designed app. The scale of the images and the use of immersive technology encourages an experiential understanding of the scope of our species’ impact on the planet, something that can often feel abstract.

The exhibition’s name, Anthropocene, is the proposed current geological age, “in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change,” according to the Anthropocene Project website.

Edward Burtynsky, Cerro Dominador Solar Project #1, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2017
Edward Burtynsky, Cerro Dominador Solar Project #1, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2017

The name comes ultimately from the Anthropocene Working Group, an international team of scientists who have been working for 10 years to determine if the Earth has left the Holocene and entered a new geological age.

These scientists argue that we have indeed come to an “unprecedented moment in planetary history” where humans “change the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined.” They point to things like climate change, “terraforming through mining, urbanization and agriculture, human-caused extinction and biodiversity loss; and the global presence of materials such as plastics and concrete” as evidence of the Anthropocene.

Building upon this research, Burtynsky, Baichwal and de Pencier spent four years travelling the globe from the Dandora landfill in Nairobi to log booms on Vancouver Island, documenting landscapes profoundly altered by mining, deforestation, urbanisation and other human activity.

The exhibition at the National Gallery is part of the larger Anthropocene Project, which also includes the documentary of the same name and a simultaneous sister exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Although powerful, this exhibition is not one to prescribe any remedies. “The work asks more questions than it answers, which is what artists are there to do,” says Burtynsky in the exhibition’s press release. Instead,  Burtynsky, Baichwal and de Pencier say, “Solutions to the problems we face as a species and as stewards of the planet will be found in collaboration and community.”

If you would like to connect with people in your community to explore solutions, the Ottawa New Socialists are organizing an event called “System Change, Not Climate Change: A Radical Response to the Anthropocene” on Oct. 13.

Brian McDougall of the Ottawa New Socialists says the event is designed to “bring together different segments of the community, groups who don’t usually work together like scientists, artists and political activists, to talk about why a radical response to climate change is necessary.”

The event will begin with an eco-socialist tour of the exhibition, followed by a public meeting and discussion of the politics of stopping climate change – with an emphasis on system change and local campaigns. According to the event page, the group wants to emphasize the role of  capitalism in the Anthropocene and to break the taboo of the one percent that is “unwilling to question their capitalist system to save the planet.”

Dates & Info

The Anthropocene exhibition runs Sept. 26 through to Feb. 24, 2019.

The Ottawa New Socialists’ event “System Change, Not Climate Change: A Radical Response to the Anthropocene” runs from 1-5 pm on Saturday, Oct. 13.

The gallery will also host the Ottawa premiere of the documentary film Anthropocene (Sept. 27, 2018 at 6:30), and the film will run at the Bytowne Cinema from Oct. 5-11.