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Earth(ly) Matters. How Exhibition Spaces Capture Natural Environments (2021-)

(Working Title)

Dr. Friederike Schäfer, Research Area 2: "Travelling Matters"
Postdoctoral Research Project

Welcome to the Anthropocene. The Earth in Our Hands (Deutsches Museum, Munich, 2014-16), The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence (Manifesta 12, Palermo, 2018), Down to Earth. Klima Kunst Diskurs: unplugged (Gropius Bau, Berlin, 2020) or Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics (ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2020-21) represent a growing number of large-scale exhibitions that engage in a discourse suggesting that the earth as a global environment can no longer be conceived of as separate from human activity. Following the theory proposed by a range of scientists, we have thus entered a new geological epoch within the natural history of the earth. Popularised in 2002 through the publication of a paper in Nature by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, this discourse has been subsumed under the term Anthropocene, and subsequently involved not only the natural and social sciences, but also the humanities and the arts. In fact, while one of the responsible scientific committees for the naming of the geological time units, the international Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS), has officially rejected the proposal to name our current epoch the "Anthropocene" in March 2024, the cultural, and popular, discourse has by now established this paradigm change.

Many of the exhibition announcements state that it is the urgency of the progressing climate change as a societal issue that led to the conception of these exhibitions, and the titles often directly address our own actions, as captured in the metaphor of "The Earth in Our Hands." Whereas the rising prominence of the scientific concept of the Anthropocene can be regarded as the discursive backdrop, it also is a controversially debated theory, and the exhibitions mirror this ongoing critical discourse by drawing on different strands of theoretical and philosophical notions of the earth as natural environment (Demos 2017). Whether framed as "whole earth," "planetary garden" and "critical zones," or in more general terms as natural environment or ecology, the common tenor of these exhibitions suggests to be nothing short of a call for a paradigm shift regarding the Western dualistic conceptions of human/culture – nature relations.

In the research project Earth(ly) Matters. How Exhibition Spaces Capture Natural Environments, Friederike Schäfer examines how these exhibitions function as spaces that conflate aesthetic experience and knowledge production, and how aspects of materiality and mediality intersect to create new formats of mediation. Especially because contemporary exhibitions combine and juxtapose materialities and medialities of the different arts, subsuming diverse performative, installative, narrative and/or pictorial artistic practices, as well as popular and scientific media, they thus act as an overarching discursive format. An analysis of these exhibitions based on their material and media configurations, as well as their methods and practices of mediation, will help to understand through what means and methods exhibitions seek to communicate complex scientific/philosophical debates to a general public. And further, in what ways they potentially become actors within an ongoing discourse themselves, the underlying key question being how exhibitions dealing with the ongoing discourse around "the Anthropocene" connect different communities across the globe, as well as through different temporalities.