Antipodean Elements: Previewing the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne

Timothy Neale

Morwell open cut coal mine, Victoria (CSIRO)      

Morwell open cut coal mine, Victoria (CSIRO)

Debates over the past decade about the existence and start date of ‘the Anthropocene’ – or, the age of the human – have provided an important prompt for academics, artists, community organisers, activists, and others. In many different sites, this prompt has pointed them in the direction of big questions about industrialisation, modernity, the human and the more-than-human, leading to discussions about whether we might be better off working through some other term: Chthulucene (Haraway, 2015), Capitalocene (Moore, 2016), or Plantropocene (Myers, 2016)? Arguably, though, these important debates regarding nomenclature, categorisation and temporal boundaries have sometimes sidelined tricky questions; namely, questions about what ‘we’ – people concerned with disastrous human impacts on our planetary surrounds – should do now. For me, the social emergence of ‘the Anthropocene’ as an idea reveals not only the terrible ecological predicament this planet is in, but also the ongoing need to critically reconsider how knowledge of ecologies and geological eras (and much more) is produced and reproduced. What forms of critique, knowledge-making and collaboration are needed to meet the challenges of our present? Building on the success of other campuses in Berlin, Philadelphia and elsewhere, the upcoming Anthropocene Campus Melbourne (ACM18) has been assembled in part to consider these issues. What are scholars, artists and others to do now, at this moment of declared crisis?

In chairing the committee behind ACM18, I periodically wonder how it came to be located here in a city that, while firmly within the Global North, is also within the planetary and scholarly ‘south’. A partial answer is that fellow slow disasterist Scott Knowles asked me if I could come to the Anthropocene Campus Philadelphia, held at Drexel University in 2017, and I said ‘absolutely’. Previous to this, there had been some conversations online and in person about how a similar event could or should be hosted in Australia around the 2018 meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) in Sydney. Then, over those four days in Philadelphia, I was either elected, selected or declared myself the go-to person of the emergent antipodean ‘Anthropocene Campus’. Soon, allies and partners were found. Dates were chosen and then changed. Proposals were written and rewritten. A committee formed and, by early 2018, we were able to confidently declare that the event was happening, hosted by Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation and Deakin Science and Society Network, in partnership with the University of New South Wales Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Centro de Investigación para la Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres (CIGIDEN) and with support from the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

This list, however, is not nearly a complete list of the institutions and individuals that have participated in planning the event. Inspired by the Philadelphia event, and the fantastic efforts of Scott and other organisers, we wanted to make sure participants would get out into the city and its surrounds, working with the themes of the event in more located ways than are possible in a university seminar room. The event is now supported in one way or another by engagements with several artists, the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, University of Melbourne, Melbourne Water, Museums Victoria, CERES, Royal Botanical Gardens, and National Gallery of Victoria, amongst others. The ACM18 event will also borrow heavily from the structure of the Philadelphia campus, occurring over four days. It is built around four ‘elemental’ seminar streams – EARTH, WATER, FIRE, and AIR/FLESH – each led by a small team of scholars located at a range of Australian (myselfMatthew KearnesGeorgina Drew, Ruth Morgan, Will Smith, Eben Kirksey) and international (Manuel Tironi, Jessica Cattelino, Ali KennerAlex Zahara) institutions.

Bushfire in Coomalie Shire, Northern Territory (Neale)

During the campus, each participant will engage with two streams over the first two days, as well as keynotes (Karen BaradHannah Landecker, Margaret Jolly, and Lesley Head) and plenary panels, before heading out on fieldtrips on the third day. It is worth concealing the full details of these fieldtrips for now, but I can say at the moment that they will involve participants heading out into the city and its surrounds to engage with sites of soil curation, Aboriginal cultural heritage, water management and botanical experimentation. At least one of these fieldtrips will culminate with participants presenting collaborative ‘fresh takes on old stuff’ at the Melbourne Museum. On the fourth day, there will be more keynotes, a plenary by our excellent ‘roving plenarists’ and further opportunities for people to visit ACM18’s two art exhibits at Testing Grounds, a temporary site for art experiments funded by the Melbourne City Council. There are also extra bonus activities for those still in Melbourne following the ‘official’ close, with a foraging workshop in our urban surrounds and a screening of Dziga Vertov’s 1931 film Enthusiasm featuring a live score.

When we put out a call for participants in early 2018 we received applications from three times more people than we had the capacity to accept. The response was exceptional and humbling. We also received emails from people who could not physically make it to Melbourne but wanted to, in some way, ‘participate’ with it. Conscious of these facts, some events at ACM18 will be open to the public, and we will also be chronicling the event’s sprawling range of sites and proceedings in various ways. Some things will be transmitted out quickly, via live tweeting and video, and some will be transmitted, with time, through the Anthropocene Curriculum website and elsewhere. If you are interested in keeping up with these transmissions then please enter your details on our mailing list and we will endeavour to keep you in the know.

This article was reproduced with permission. It was originally published in Backchannels – Society for Social Studies of Science on 20 August 2018.

Timothy Neale is a pakeha scholar living in Narrm/Melbourne, where his research concerns the intersections between settler-Indigenous politics, natural hazards and environmental governance. He is currently Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deputy Convener of the Deakin Science and Society Network, and Chair of the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne organising committee.