Case Studies and Seminars: The Shape of a Practice

September 30th, 2020

The week-long The Shape of a Practice event, which took place in October 2020, was a product of a diverse collection of case studies.

The week-long The Shape of a Practice event, which took place in October 2020, was a product of a diverse collection of case studies now presented here in one comprehensive archive. Over 100 contributors shared and discussed the materials from these case studies with fellow participants during the event in internal seminars, presentations, and exchanges with a public audience. In the seminars, the material was renegotiated through the guise of four research practices: archiving, sensing, communicating, and consensus building. This process entailed reflecting on the differences and commonalities between the methods and contexts of each case study which then fed the presentations and discussions that took place during the public program. Following the conclusion of the event, the participants reflected upon these exchanges, expanding and reshaping their case study materials for publication here on the Anthropocene Curriculum platform.

Understanding the conditions of the Anthropocene often starts with local actors making sense of changing ecologies while weathering the cascading dynamics of a transforming global climate system. This knowledge is more often than not a byproduct of people building and maintaining relations that support living environments and communities in a specific place, or that react to political and geo-social challenges from a particular perspective/locality. Amongst the many practices of this kind, artistic and cultural producers are contributing imaginative interpositions, often in close dialogue with those who defend or invent anew fragile forms of inhabiting the Earth with others.

There remains, however, a troubled competition between the knowledge that comes out of these practices, with what is understood as primarily local knowledge on the one hand, and scientifically produced knowledge—often understood as the ideal language to speak about environmental conditions at the planetary/global scale—on the other. The challenge of “leveling up” knowledge from local practices without erasing or flattening the radically different practices, circumstances, and perspectives underlies any attempt to negotiate areas of agreement or dissent on ways of better inhabiting the planet. 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?

Throughout the week-long program of The Shape of a Practice, which took place both online and at HKW in October 2020, over 100 invited contributors from Anthropocene Curriculum initiatives and related projects shared and exchanged on their site-specific research using the format of case studies. As much as the forms of local engagement presented differed—with a diverse range of artists, scientists, academics, and activists participating—so too did the backgrounds against which the practices were presented: Each case study represents an individual context and a contributor’s attempt to situate and engage in it.

Any attempt to bring these variegated approaches together must deal with the asymmetries of access, infrastructure, and power that contour the epoch of the Anthropocene. As an attempt to navigate this heterogeneity, The Shape of Practice took a conversational approach, making time and space for exchange on the effectivity, contexts, and reasons behind the research practices presented. An underlying conceptual idea was to consider topological relations between the case studies instead of a topography of global crisis scenes. This entails discussing how different local conditions are inevitably tied to planetary systems and how particular places on the planet, even if physically distant, can still profoundly affect one another. Embracing an awareness of how the Anthropocene produces conditional relationships and not simply local disasters is crucial as a starting point for acknowledging different positionalities while seeking common ground.

Taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, simultaneously in a designed online environment and physically at HKW during a pre-lockdown pause in Berlin, October 2020, The Shape of a Practice played out over the compact time-space bracket of one week, encompassing both closed seminars and an open public program. The expanded digital versions of the case studies, published in 2021, are intended to open up this exchange further, extending it both geographically and temporally.

As a new digital format on the Anthropocene Curriculum website, Case Studies foster new possibilities for publishing research from academic, activist, and artistic collaborators, forging new connections and collaborations via the online platform. Visually and conceptually, the new format picks up on the notion of a physical research desk, as seen from above, upon which sits a wealth of materials that the visitor might like to pick up and examine further. Not least due to the unstable conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, novel forms and infrastructures for communicating, sharing, and working together across disciplines and geographic contexts have become a necessity for any project dealing with planetary issues, including the Anthropocene Curriculum.

Originally considered through the lens of the four distinct practices Archiving, Sensing, Communicating and Consensus Building, the case studies also indicate the rich exchange that took place during the four related seminars that ran through The Shape of a Practice. Their outcome is also documented below.