“Spatial Figures in the Anthropocene” – The CRC 1265’s 5th international conference
Opening: Thinking pathways
“Spatial Figures in the Anthropocene” was the title of the 5th two-day international symposium of the CRC 1265 Re-Figuration of Spaces. The challenge that organizers Ignacio Farías (HU Berlin/CRC 1265) and Silke Steets (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg/CRC 1265) posed to the speakers and the audience was a rather complex and imaginative one: what happens to scalar thinking when the analytical distinctions between global and local as well as human and non-human spaces no longer make sense, in particular considering the engagement with climate change and the planetary in the social sciences and humanities?
Ignacio Farías, referring to Bruno Latour (Latour 2017), hypothesized that the Earth – in what could be called the Anthropocene era – emerges as Gaia, not as a mother figure but a multiplicity, a network of organisms, and a new problem space. But how then to think the multiple and how to conceptualize this world that we all inhabit? Silke Steets introduced the four spatial figures that the CRC distinguishes – territory, place, network, and route – as typological modes of order in modernity, and pointed to new, intervening figures such as patches proposed by Anna Tsing (Tsing 2019, 2024). What if territory does not act as a flat background; what happens to places beyond human scale, or when routes and networks are shifted and shared?
These pathways of thinking about the multiple, strange, and unpredictable dimensions and moments of space marked the opening of the symposium.
Emblems and figures running through
A particular emblem unintentionally ran through the following sessions: the firefighter and the burning forest, a widely used media image. This symbolic appearance resonated with and resembled the photograph of an Estonian pine forest after deforestation that graced the poster of the symposium (see below). In this image, the missing pieces make visible what remains after massive anthropogenic destruction, and new areas emerge with patterns created by clearing and vehicle tracks. And beyond that, one could even speculate about what lies beneath the surface.
The fire motif was particularly striking in Gastón Gordillo’s (UBC, Vancouver) contribution to place, territory, and terrain. Taking Canada as an example, he showed how places we love are threatened by intense wildfires. Inspired by Lefebvre, he emphasized the sociality in the (re)production of space: how people experience and perceive climatic disruptions.
Alexandra Arènes (Studio SOC, Paris) marked the shift from territory to the terrestrial via maps as speculative devices: She explained how the Parisian project Terra Forma seeks to make the critical zone, the surface of planet Earth, visible through mapping techniques in order to change stakeholder perspectives. This project proved especially inspiring for the audience interested in architecture and urban development, and was discussed further in the coffee conversations in the afternoon.
Susanne Hauser’s (UdK, Berlin) historical overview of urban development provided numerous examples and insights into how architecture takes place and rethinks space, and nuclear waste becomes illustrative material for ways to address environmental crises.
Christopher Kelty’s (UCLA, Los Angeles) multimedia presentation featured historic U.S. helicopter airlifts for displaced animals and the Los Angeles lion known as “P-22”, which recently set its routes on a Hollywood freeway. He showed how the niche as a spatial figure can be particularly productive in incorporating the disturbance of, or better, the urban co-habitation with, non-humans.
Concerns and conceptual inventiveness
Further conceptual discussions took place in the various sessions and coffee conversations. The Internet was another concern, with Jennifer Gabrys (Cambridge University) pointing to the high-speed developments of 5G technology as a site of transformation. Under these circumstances, the network appears as only a temporary figure of a future of animated digital environments, a blending condition that tech developers call “phygital.” Thus, “smart forests” and “smart cities” become arenas where open and critical questions are raised about the advanced automation in which machines talk to machines.
Marcela Suarez (FU Berlin/UC Berkeley) conceptualized the Internet as a network of networks, always manifesting in materiality. In particular, the notion of the terrestrial Internet carries relations to power and colonialism. In the meantime, the Internet as a territory is mobilized by South American feminist collectives to resist the costs of connectivity – social life that is tracked, classified, colonized, and turned into economic value.
Andrew Baldwin (Durham University) refigured the route from a movement from A to B to a process entangled with the compositions of the planet Earth. He used the migratory routes that underpin the carbon economy of the United Arab Emirates as an example. Importantly, he also pointed out the racist connotations of the figure of the “climate migrant” in the discussion on mobilities in and of the Anthropocene.
Tomás Usón (HU Berlin) offered insights into his fieldwork in Callejón de Huaylas in the Peruvian Andes, a region heavily marked by colonialism and environmental disasters. In a careful engagement and with the intention of conceiving space as multiple, he introduced the promising concept of Tinku, originating from the Quechua notion of tinkuy, which means encountering differences or gathering in the differences – and urged us to think beyond scientific vs. indigenous knowledge.
The evening presentation on botanical gardens kept the inventiveness going: Séverine Marguin (CRC 1265) and Jamie-Scott Baxter (CRC 1265) expanded on the notion of mimetic spaces to include mirroring and illusions inherent in spatiality. Together with the artist-architect Lus Constantin (Berlin), they captured the evening audience’s attention with their research on two botanical gardens in Edinburgh and Berlin, which was also translated into a metaverse animation and could be explored on-site.
Structuring and blurring
Wrapping up the rich input, the panel discussion “After the Local – After the Global” drew out some key consequences and questions.
Philipp Misselwitz (TU Berlin/CRC 1265) addressed the tension between spatial theoretical ambitions and the solution-oriented aspirations of urban practitioners and architects. He reaffirmed the call for different kinds of spatial knowledge and the need to find ways to make generative contributions that move away from disturbed cultures of human nature towards the well-being of ecosystems and organisms that strengthen planetary health. Christopher Kelty raised the critical question of definition, unsure whether there was a shared understanding of the Anthropocene at the symposium. Martina Löw (TU Berlin/CRC 1265) commented on the contributions and called for a practice that acknowledges that we need some imagination of a better world as we want it to be. She also pointed out the need to be more open to figures in their different contexts, to mix perspectives, and to broaden views. Thus, she presented thought experiments on the thematic spatial figures: For example, could the route become a trajectory?
The symposium concluded with a captivating lecture-performance of a book-in-progress by Ignacio Farías and Silke Steets, together with visual artist Nikolaus Gansterer (Vienna): “An Atlas of Spatial Figures.” The intention was to blur and diversify spatial figures.
The audience could experience a reading of various curated speculative field notes, written by CRC members, which both irritated and illustrated spatial figures. The artist elaborated the artistic commentary by applying materials, such as paper with slogans, carbon pencil shavings, moss, feathers, aluminum foil, leaves, a glass of water, and rocks on a glass panel projected onto the wall.
It is difficult to recall all the insights and ideas that went into this rich lecture-performance, which is better experienced first-hand. So, an invitation was extended to follow up on this collective CRC project, to explore the book, and to come to the book launch to reconnect!
Recap and Outlook
Overall, the CRC symposium “Spatial Figures in the Anthropocene” demonstrated the fruitfulness of debates between scholars across regions and disciplines on grand contemporary questions such as spatiality in the Anthropocene, and proved the value of collaboration between two research centers in hosting an international event.
The ICI’s fully booked venue on the Pfefferberg, a former brewery site in Prenzlauer Berg, offered hospitality and a great view of Berlin to stimulate conversation. Ignacio Castillo Ulloa, Nina Baur, Sung Un Gang, Jörg Stollmann, Francesca Ceola, Martina Löw, Anna Juliane Heinrich, Zozan Baran, Margherita Tess, Vivien Sommer, Sezgin Sönmez, Jochen Kibel and Hubert Knoblauch acted as moderators, creating an inviting atmosphere for discussion, exchange, and expertise. Online participation was partially available and well attended.
After two days of intense discussions, the bright, lively, and large audience of CRC members, speakers, and guests from different academic backgrounds and contexts, as well as many others connected to or interested in the CRC’s work, likely entered the fall season of 2023 with a lot of food for thought on how to relate to the Earth, to fire environments, built environments in general, and anthropogenic disturbances, and how to capture them anew in spatial thinking and activity.
It remains to be seen, and requires further empirically grounded research, which of the newly proposed spatial figures and further explorations of place, territory, network, and route can unfold potentials in the upcoming collective work of the CRC; the multiplication of topographical and disciplinary perspectives under the conditions of vast anthropogenic impacts on the Earth initiated by the symposium has paved a way for possible directions.
Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Translated by Catherine Porter. First published. Cambridge, UK Medford, MA: Polity, 2017.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Andrew S. Mathews, and Nils Bubandt. ‘Patchy Anthropocene: Landscape Structure, Multispecies History, and the Retooling of Anthropology: An Introduction to Supplement 20’. Current Anthropology 60, no. S20 (1 August 2019): p. 186–97.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou. Field Guide to the Patchy Anthropocene: The New Nature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2024.
Labyrinth Garden Project in Los Angeles: https://labyrinth.garden/about/
Conference videos by ICI Berlin: https://www.ici-berlin.org/events/spatial-figures-in-the-anthropocene/
Jonna Josties is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Institute for European Ethnology. She conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the Tech Scene in the Bay Area and in Berlin. During her field studies, she has been a visiting scholar at the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley. Of particular interest in her dissertation is the emergence of the concept of the ecosystem in economic discourse and innovation studies in STS fields.