The Shape of a Practice

September 30th, 2020

The Shape of a Practice constituted an experiment in negotiating the particularities of context, purpose, and method.

Negotiating Context in the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is often perceived as either a planetary-scale concept or an extremely local concern. Yet neither of these accounts considers that the global and the local are deeply interconnected. So how can diverse local research, struggles, and practices be related to one another in order to establish a mutual ground of experience and for action within the geological age of humans? The Shape of a Practice brought together over 100 researchers, scientists, artists, and activists to share their fields and methods of work on everything from water pollution and disaster management to an interrogation of the new geological era’s colonial genealogy. In an interactive virtual environment, specifically designed for the event, as well as on-site at HKW, distinct questions, strategies, and forms of action were linked to form a topology of the Anthropocene.

New modes and methods of collaboration between science, art, and civic engagement are critical for understanding and shaping the complex transformation processes of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Curriculum is a project that begins from the premise that any curriculum is knotted up in histories of power, context, and value systems that are contestable, contradictory, and interwoven with each other. And that, by consequence, such times of radical change require that reflective questions of purpose and intent become more prominent than usual—particularly when engaging in knowledge practices that are trying to respond to these changes.

How one responds to those two interrelated realities is a product of how each of us has learned to understand problems and how they are framed or passed down to us—which values, intents, and methods are at play, be they learned or imposed. That is, one needs to delve into how knowledge is produced by accounting for the values underlying it, knowing full well how these produce asymmetries of power and partial ways of knowing. Any curriculum is knotted up in histories of power, context, and value systems that are contestable, contradictory, and interwoven with each other. From this point of view, it would appear that responding to the Anthropocene requires a grasp of its topology rather than its topography—of how it produces conditional relationships, not simply local disasters.

The Shape of a Practice was an experiment in negotiating these particularities. To do so, it brought together over 100 academics, scientists, artists, and activists from across the world to share research material that tries to understand and respond to the Anthropocene through knowledge practices and local contexts. Over the course of a week, the research was discussed and worked through in order to determine how the contexts, purposes, and methods they articulate could be brought into conversation with one another leading to coordinated efforts and collective practices encompassing a tangle of concerns and approaches that are difficult to neatly stitch together.

Each of these research projects approaches the Anthropocene from their local-global relationships while also reflecting on the tools and knowledge traditions that formed these inquiries. For instance, the Somankidi Coura cooperative, which emerged from political organization and then led to farming, archival, and pedagogical practices, demonstrates how local ecological issues square with the movement of global workers between communities in Mali and France. Elsewhere in Cheorwon, South Korea, human-crane entanglements show how rewilding is being used as a way of rethinking conservation in and around the demilitarized zone, weaving together technology, geopolitics, and ecology.

This pairing of the global and the local in these researches is crucial for formulating a nuanced understanding of the Anthropocene, which is often thought of either as a planetary-scale concept or an extremely local concern. The Shape of a Practice focused on bridging these two codependent ways of understanding by constantly negotiating the scales and relationships that weave in and out of each case and context.

The research material was collectively worked through and discussed in four different practice-based seminars (Communicating, Sensing, Archiving, and Consensus Building), which acted as catalysts for delving into the purpose, context, and method that makes each research project what it is. A public program ran concurrently throughout the week, during which different aspects of the researches were discussed and presented to the general public, inviting them into the conversation.

Foregrounding all these activities was a dynamic virtual space on the website. This virtual space offered participants and the general public a chance to navigate through different research materials, find various portals into live events, and enable communication with other people taking part. The aim of this space wasto find lasting and meaningful ways of undertaking Anthropocene-related research and sharing it among a network of people spread all around the world by experimenting with forms of digital research that are immersive, interactive, and make use of technologies that open new avenues.

These different projects were—and continue to be—brought together in an effort to work collaboratively and learn from one another across a global landscape molded by asymmetrical power dynamics, inequitable access, and conflicting concerns. This approach aims to generate public discussions about the shared purpose of research communities and knowledge traditions and how they interface with the social and political concerns that ground them. As an inward reflection, it explores pathways toward equitable forms of consensus and to establish a mode of responding to the Anthropocene amid the radical multiplicity of planetary urgencies—urgencies often under the thumb of the powerful and wealthy and bent to their outsize concerns.