Anomic Garden

A still frame from Atomic Garden, a film by Ana Vaz. The image is of a firework exploding in the sky in a circular pattern.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a really great evening of short films. They were being screened at Hangar as the companion to a mini-symposium, Techgnosis and Ecodelics in the Age of Global Meltdown. Organised by Cinelab, this also featured a lecture by Patricia Pisters from the University of Amsterdam (that I very sadly missed, but not for lack of trying). The films screened were Atomic Garden by the phenomenal Ana Vaz (2018), and Guerras Floridas by the Mexican collective Los Ingrávidos (2021), alongside Life After BOB by LA based filmmaker Ian Cheng (also, 2021). The curation of these films seemed to divide into two halves, as examples of Ecodelics & Techgnosis respectively.

Atomic Garden is exemplary of Vaz's visual lyricism. Shot on beautiful 16mm, the film is a minimal and abstract meditation on ecology in the age of nuclear catastrophe and anthropogenic forces: "a stroboscopic reflection on transmutation, survival and the resilience of myriad life forms in the face of toxicity". The use of celluloid and the stroboscopic montage centres the physicality of film as medium front and center. Shooting on film is bound by temporal limitations - it is a finite resource. The length of a roll of 16mm film stock defines the maximum duration of any given shot, and experienced film editors could tell the runtime of a reel just by holding it in the hand. And the film techniques used in Atomic Garden are deeply ground in material reality. The film is a single montage, cutting frame by frame between different shots, constructed by slicing up every frame and splicing them back one by one. Through this, we are made aware of the limitations of visual perception. The images strobe together in a dizzying effect that breaks up the continuity of moving images we are so used to seeing on screen.

(I should note here that digital storage is also a finite resource but we tend to ignore this).

By contrast, Life After Bob is an examination in artifice, animated in the Unity game engine and exhibited in a way that could allow audiences to explore any scene as a virtual space, on their smartphone, through a process the creators call "Worldwatching". This high-tech format compliments a high sci-fi story, that explores AI companions, psychotropic foods, and corporate tech bro political intrigue (amongst much more). But in spite of such an ambitious concept and cutting-edge animation techniques, beneath the surface it is a relatively traditional hero's journey plot piece that left me feeling a little cold. For a film set in a near-future "anomic age", the irony of this was not lost on me. This narrative conservatism is sorely reminiscent of what Los Ingrávidos aim to dismantle: "the audiovisual grammar that the aesthetic-television-cinematic corporatism has used and uses to effectively guarantee the diffusion of an audiovisual ideology by means of which a continuous social and perceptive control is maintained over the majority of the population".

Viewing these three films together, the two curatorial halves seemed worlds apart. They did work to illustrate Ecodelics and Techgnosis, but off the back of some recent reading and researching, I couldn't help also viewing them as proxies for two radical tendencies in contemporary art/critical theory that I have been thinking about a lot lately: namely, New Materialism and Left Accelerationism. I won't go into too much detail about either of these topics here (this post is already at 2k words), but what interests me here is how they intersect and oppose. One reorients of our place within the natural order by broadly insisting that we should refrain from viewing ourselves as outside or above nature. We cannot supersede the material reality of life on a living planet, we must stay with the trouble. The other feels somehow both far more hypothetical and yet more likely to be adopted by some political entity somewhere. It proposes high-tech solutions to the tensions between capitalism and socialism, and by incorporating the arch of recent technological advancement into Marx's historical materialism, it builds a rebuttal to any technocratic neoliberalism arguments that paint Marxism as regressive. It posits a post-work and post-capitalist future where technology allows us to eliminate exploitative labour and social disharmony, by denying the social inequality and artificial scarcity that capitalism is built on.

This is a noble goal. So much of the hardships we see today are manufactured for the benefit of a dwindling few. The cost of living crisis is not impacting those at the top. But there's a flaw in the accelerationist approach, one that is shared by the techno-capitalism it opposes: our current technological paradigm is unsustainable. It will need to respond the material limits, as the ecological arguments of the New Materialists suggest. Dreams of fully automated luxury communism can not avoid engaging with the arts of living on a damaged planet. But the same can not be said vice-versa. While New Materialist thought looks to immerse itself in the problem of our ecological reality, Left Accelerationists want to rise over it. But the tech world is built inside the natural world. We cannot maintain the same scale of automation, or hope for continuing advancements, if we are unable to address climate change. This is why whenever I hear techno-solutionist hyper-optimism from the those I ally with on left, I find my climate anxiety becomes most acute.

Chat-GPT and AI will undoubtedly be used to crush labour rights and hoard wealth, but climate change will upend every aspect of how we live today. We cannot ignore the alarm bells that now ring out from ecological collapse. That said, I will be the first to admit it is difficult to comprehend such a colossal threat. It's hard to respond to such a tectonic shift. We can see the problems clear as day, and we can continue to contribute to them. Why is that? When the body of scientific evidence is so concurrent and clear, why do we fail to act? In the wake of yet another failed COP, we know this is the greed of the global elite. Sure. But why am I not out performing direct action? Why don't we all blow up a pipeline?

I stumbled on a random journal paper titled Climate Change as Liminal Experience by Nicu Gavriluță and Lucian Mocrei-Rebrean from the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Romania. It's a short paper that does what it says on the tin - it connects climate anxiety with liminality, drawing on Glenn Albrecht's concept of solastalgia and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

In anthropology, liminality is the disorientation we feel when transitioning from one worldview to another - the sense of vulnerability and confusion felt in a gap between ideologies. Put simply, it's the feeling of bewilderment when you don't know what to believe anymore. Solastalgia is a term that denotes the distress caused once the environment you know deteriorates; after a landscape you are naturally attuned to begins to change. We enter a liminal experience when we lose faith in our existing beliefs, and the paper frames the solastalgic effect of climate change as an alienating force that is powerful enough to undermine any existing systems of belief we may hold. The changing reality of ecological collapse has produced a gap between the world we knew until now, and the unknown world we are moving into. Climate change is so unprecedented that it breaks the continuity of both our individual experiences and our sociocultural histories.

"We are perfectly aware of the fact that the world, as we have known it, is no longer and that a new one has not yet appeared"

  • Nicu Gavriluță and Lucian Mocrei-Rebrean

The solastalgic sense of loss also perhaps explains the gap between our logical understanding of the veracity of climate science, and the divergent ways in which we fail to accommodate such facts into our personal, social and political outlooks:

"Following Schutz's phenomenologically inspired account of shock experiences that occur when moving between worlds, it can be argued that an awareness of the consequences of climate change induces a certain cognitive tension between the world of our daily practice and the world of scientific knowledge."

  • Nicu Gavriluță and Lucian Mocrei-Rebrean

The article presents liminality as a journey from the familiar toward the strange, until that becomes our new familiar. It is process by which alien beliefs are brought within our horizon of understanding - where the homely must become unheimlich before we can create room for a new normal. It requires we experience a process of othering, of being alienated from ourselves, of seeing ourselves as a Lacanian other. We slowly accept a new belief system only once we have performed that psychological work which takes place in a liminal state. Essentially, we are unable to incorporate a new climatic reality into our worldview without accepting that the old world is gone.

But accepting that is terrifying. It's not hard to understand why any other option would appeal to so many. It's hard to find a historical precedent for the scale of rupture presented by the climate crisis. From a eurocentric perspective, we can look for some parallels within the social upheaval following the Black Death, or more aptly perhaps, look to the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which stubbed out numerous advanced civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean, totally flattening the historical record in the region. We still don't really know the cause, or what happened in the aftermath.

How we choose to respond to this terror will shape the bulk of political consciousnesses for the rest of my lifetime. We're currently seeing the right's response: head fully in sand, while claiming climate change is some sort of left-wing psyop. But more chillingly, a major trend seems to be a revival of national identities, and protectionist political approaches that seek to push the economic burden onto diplomatic allies and enemies alike. These fascistic projects present hardman toughness as the way to stand against the perceived dangers in the world, all while creating much more tangible dangers for the disenfranchised: migrants, refugees, the disabled, queer, or otherwise other. This isolationist thinking is even now polluting left-wing circles too, as illustrated in Germany where Die Linke looks set for a schism over the topic of immigration.

"Capital is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity."

  • Mark Fisher

In The Weird and the Eerie (2015), the late and sorely missed Mark Fisher outlines a number of everyday ways in which we encounter entities in the key of strange. The book is about looking, unflinchingly, into the dark corners of our mind, our society, the physical world, and popular culture. With the rise of fascism at home, and as solastalgia thickens around every room, now seems like the time for us to grapple with the strange.

The Weird and the Eerie is a guide to finding unlikely beauty in desolate places, to finding hope in foreign territories. Despite the sorrow and depression in Fisher's work, it clearly comes from a place of optimism. And by engaging with this tension, Fisher provides an unintuitive insight that may allow us to leverage the alienation of anomia and solastalgia as twin sensations that push us toward a new collective politics aimed at bring us all back together. This isn't clearly defined yet, but it seems to me to be emerging.

After watching a phenomenal talk given by Fisher in the last year of his life, I have been obsessing lately over the question of what new forms of consciousness are taking shape, and which of these may depose capitalist realism. I feel the liminality that we find ourselves living in is shaping a new ecological consciousness. Environmental concerns cut across the traditional left/right divide. The contingency of this liminality may allow us to build a new constituency, one that provides a more egalitarian response, much like the post-war social welfare that grew out of the horror of the second world war, which was itself a liminal experience.

But if we're not careful, it may drive us in the opposite direction. It's important to keep our eye on the prize and to build solidarity. If we want to foster this new ecological consciousness as a system that lets us understand what to believe in an age of climate collapse, then we must allow ourselves to welcome the discomfort of solastalgia and be prepared to demand a fair and unifying response. We must pass through this liminal state and accept the way it will change us. To do that we must let ourselves be vulnerable, and in doing so, stand against the hardening politics of nationalism and fascism.