Art for the Human Event: The Anthropocene and Media(S)cene

“Hot Planet, Cool Media,” mixed-media painting by Barry Vacker and Liza Samuel; 3 panels, 6 feet x 10 feet. Developed as part of the “Media(S)cene” exhibit for the 2019 Media Ecology Association Conference. Hosted at the University of Toronto (June 27–29). Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

Anthropocene — Mediacene. Layers of fossils — Layers of media technology. Ways of living — Ways of seeing.

Scientists say we have entered the Anthropocene, the new epoch of human-caused change on Planet Earth. The newest fossil records suggest our 24/7 electrified, industrialized civilization is now generating a new geological and ecological epoch on Earth. We are literally transforming the ecology and biosphere of our planet. Climate disruption is merely one part of the Anthropocene, along with polluted air, nuclear waste, mountainous landfills, plasticized and acidified oceans, sprawling cities of concrete and asphalt, and even species extinction events. It’s all effecting a new fossil layer that spans the globe. We are just beginning to grasp the long-term planetary effects of the Anthropocene.

Most geological epochs last millions of years, not the mere 12,000 years of human society and 250 years of industrial civilization, which has grown exponentially since 1950, the year selected as marking the Anthropocene. So it is perhaps arrogant and narcissistic to think our species will last an entire epoch, given our penchant for warfare and self-destruction. After all, at least 12,000 nuclear bombs still exist! In terms of geological time, human civilization is, so far, merely an “event”—the human event, a recent happening with some long-term effects.

Our 125 years in the electric sun represents an infinitesimal moment on a planet almost five billion years old. And it is precisely our immersion in electric media that amplify our significance in the grand scheme of things, removing nature and the night skies from human consciousness—thus placing our species at the center of the universe, the center of all meaning, value, and purpose on Planet Earth and beyond.

If we are in the Anthropocene, then we are certainly in the Mediacene. Given that technological civilization has transformed the eco-systems on its host planet, Earth, then how can mediated civilization have not transformed the ego-systems in its host species, human consciousness? Given that we have extended visual technologies into the tiniest particles, into our bodies, around the planet, and into deep space, then how can our visions have not been transformed? Surely, the human event is complemented by a human communication event.

Of course, Mediacene is not meant in a strict, scientific sense. That might flip out most scientists and media theorists. Rather, the term is meant as a techno-philosophical concept related to how media technologies make us see, and in turn, how we can see them. Hence, the more playful term “Media(S)cene,” the title for a long-term merger of theory and art developed by Julia M. Hildebrand and myself. This installation-exhibit is just a beginning. The goal is to creatively combine theory and art. Rather than explain, the goal is to explore, expand, explode.

Panorama of part of the “Media(S)cene” installation, located in the atrium of the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto, site of the 2019 Media Ecology Conference. Pictured: Barry Vacker. Julia Hildebrand was unable to attend. Photo: Gail Bower, 2019, used with permission.
Some of the visitors to the Media(S)cene installation. Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

A first step in the long-term project, the above art installation is based in our Medium concept essay, “Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene,” which won an international award in 2019—The John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in the Field of Media Ecology, awarded by the Media Ecology Association. Our goal is to create art that is striking and perhaps even beautiful, but still convey a universal message in the aesthetics—it is not meant to serve as mere decoration on the wall in a high rise in New York City, Hong Kong, or San Francisco.

In our view, it’s time for art and theory to embrace these conditions, to enlighten our species about its true effect on the planet, to grasp our role on the planet and our place in the universe.

“Message of Electric Light,” graphic design by Barry Vacker and Sara Falco, 2019; two panels, 3 feet x 10 feet. Images owned by Barry Vacker.

Electric Light: Media for the Human Event

Are there any media technologies more symbolic of humanity’s daily existence and existential narcissism than electric light and electronic screens? In the views of Earth at night from space, we see our planet spangled with orbs of yellowish-white light, all linked via webs of lights spanning the continents. Inside those orbs, it’s the human event, where it’s all about us, collectively and individually.

Electric lights illuminate our cities and homes, turning darkness into light on a daily basis, a technology for visual sight and physical security. Electric light also powers our array of electronic screens, the black mirrors which fill our daily consciousness with images and information, while putting us in utmost proximity to other humans and human events, local and afar. Powered by all kinds of electric light, human civilization is now a fully-electrified and mediated civilization, a 24/7 planetary megasystem.

Welcome to the glow of the Anthropocene, the human event radiating from America and around the world.

Consistent with our belief that art must not be limited to the gallery or museum, a version of the “Message of Electric Light” served as the backdrop for the speakers at the Philadelphia Climate Strike; Photos: Barry Vacker, 2019.

Electric lights have created a total media environment within which the human species has adapted its behavior and evolved its civilization. Electric lights have effected an existential implosion, erasing nature and the night skies from our consciousness and situating almost all of civilization inside the glow of lights and screens. Inside the glow, human existence is a kaleidoscopic carnival of daily events while divorcing us from our impact on the planet and our origins in the universe. The universe and nature are “out there” somewhere. Meanwhile, we’re “in here”—in the glow of our electrified metropolises, a world playing out on our electronic screens. The vanishing point is not longer out there on the horizon, but in here, lines converging in lights and on screens. Implosion.

“Space Station Anthropocene (LA at Night),” mixed-media painting by Barry Vacker and Liza Samuel; acrylic with pumice. 3 panels, 6 feet x 10 feet. Developed for the Media Ecology Association Conference, University of Toronto (June 27–29 2019). Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

In the mixed media painting above, the International Space Station is looking down on Los Angeles, immersed in the vanishing points of electric lights. A global capital of media and spectacle, Los Angeles and Hollywood are emblematic of an implosive civilization awash in lights and screens, yet ever more removed from its long-term impact on the planet. As a species, we live in the orbs and webs of electric light, all situated inside the planetary megasystem — on a planet surrounded by the cosmic void, enveloped by the cosmic darkness.

Close-up of “Space Station Anthropocene (LA at Night);” image taken from International Space Station, NASA. Image printed on stretched canvas painted black (acrylic and pumice). Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.
Painted with a putty knife, the goal was to convey electrified energy and movement. Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

The Heart of the Anthropocene — ”Hot Media”

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan also developed a hot-cool binary to explain our reponses to various media, based on the quantity of information flowing through each medium. But with the proliferation of computers and electronic screens (HD, plasma, desktops, laptops, tablets, phones), the usefulness of McLuhan’s binary was short-lived. However, the hot-cool terminology retains poetic power, prompting Julia and myself to re-theorize McLuhan’s binary towards a different hot-cool scale that explores the effects of contemporary media that look into and away from us. Hot media are at the heart of the Anthropocene.

Powered by electric light and electronic screens, hot media are those ego-driven media that promote an inward gaze among individuals and the human species, with the viewing subjects and viewed objects in close proximity to each other. Hot media are the tools of the pre-Copernican worldview, still maintaining an illusory cosmic centrality. Hot media produce higher densities of humans, energy, and events, and thus higher friction. With things in close proximity, even on a screen, images and and events rub, collide, or smash directly against one another. Moving at the speed of light, hot media fuel acceleration, quick reactions, short attention spans, instant feedback loops. Temperatures are higher, tempers are hotter.

“Hot and Cool Media,” two panels, printed and stretched canvas. 4 feet x 5 feet. Concept: Julia Hildebrand and Barry Vacker. Graphic design: Vacker, Hildebrand, and Sara Falco, 2019. Photo: Gaill Bower, 2019, used with permission.

Julia and I wrote in Hot and Cool in the Media(S)cene: “Hence, heat and friction also lie in our global layers of ego-media, giant clusters of networks and webs, all jammed with ever more data, images, and status updates. Social media sharing and shaming, hashtags and emojis, clickbait and catfishers, jihads and tea parties. Hot takes, hive-minds, and global swarming…

“YouTubers, tribal chieftains, Internet trolls, Twitter Gods, Trump. TV realities. The Kardashians. Copies of copies of copies. Shams, scams, fake news, false flags, and filter bubbles. Siri and Alexa. Colliding echo chambers. #MeToo. Reduce, remix, redact. Firewalls and border walls. […] Tribe battles tribe. Conflict and war. Domination and entertainment. Humans (some more than others) are the center of everything that matters. Trapped in hot media, our politics and political systems offer no solutions, no solace. No way out?”

While hot media celebrate human narcissism, they are consuming ever more electricity. Various estimates suggest that the internet and telecom platforms (servers, computers, social media, networks, etc.) may consume 20–30% of world electricity within two decades. With hot media keeping us at the center of everything, the center of all events and all meaning, how can we hope to handle climate disruption and the Anthropocene? After all, hot media will be heating the planet, too. That’s why we must extricate our consciousness from the sole grip of hot media.

“Cool Media” — Eyes of the Human Species

For three billion years, life on Earth existed within a rhythm of light and dark produced by the sun, moon, and Milky Way. Humans also evolved within the daily patterns of day and night, light and dark. Living in our electrified cities, we have removed ourselves from nature’s celestial rhythms. Given the power and seductions of hot media, it’s not hard to imagine a near future in which most everyone will never see the Milky Way with their own eyes. That’s one reason we need to return the dark skies to civilization and embrace the meaning of cool media.

Cool media are those media technologies with mostly an outward gaze, peering away from humans, with objects further apart or moving away from us. Cool media include telescopes, satellites, and space probes. Earth is below us and the starry skies are beyond us, while the voids are expanding and the galaxies are speeding away. Though filled with information, cool media confront lower densities, lower friction, and more distance events. There is less light and more cosmic darkness. Temperatures are lower, tempers are cooler, and the mind drifts and wonders.

“Hot and Cool Media,” two panels, printed and stretched canvas. 4’ x 5’. Concept: Julia Hildebrand and Barry Vacker. Graphic design: Vacker, Hildebrand, and Sara Falco, 2019. Photo by Gail Bower, 2019, used with permission.

Julia and I wrote: “In the cool gaze, events slow, attention spans grow, reflection trumps reaction, the species supersedes the tribe, borders and wars become artificial and absurd. Micro-particularities and hot affective conditions are not visible, but large-scale patterns, movements, and locations become more apparent. The more distant, aerial, and heightened perspective — beyond the thick, hot, reactive layers closer to us — opens up larger views and visions…

“Google Earth, Hubble Deep Fields, Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The cosmic web of galaxies, in a universe getting less crowded by the moment, with all galaxies are destined to disappear beyond all horizons. […] Voids, holes, and emptiness in outer space and our philosophies become visible. We are the center of nothing. Nihilism and enlightenment are the challenge. The universal over the tribal. Terrestrial heat replaced by the cosmic chill. There are no widely-accepted politics or political narratives in the cool. Hot politics freeze in the cosmic background temperature.”

With cool media, we’re forced to see ourselves through the eyes of our species, to see our existence as a species as sharing a planet with millions of other species, not merely as tribes vying for recognition and domination of our planet. Via the Hubble images on our screens, our daily existence collides with our cosmic existence, inhabiting a tiny region in a vast universe in which we are not central, not significant.

“Hot Planet, Cool Media,” mixed-media painting by Barry Vacker and Liza Samuel; acrylic with pumice; 3 panels, 6 feet x 10 feet. Developed for the Media Ecology Association Conference, University of Toronto (June 27–29 2019). Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

In “Hot Planet, Cool Media,” the universe is cooling, but it’s getting hotter on our little rock. In the observatory on the right (above), a brainy species measures the acceleration of the expanding universe, while its home planet heats up due to fossil-fuel climate disruption — which the same species seems unable to adequately address. The flames on the left are a controlled burn to prevent a drought-fueled wildfire from engulfing the Hobby-Eberle Telescope (HET) at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains in far west Texas. The HET is the fourth largest optical telescope in the world and the desert is intensifying in West Texas, especially with all the fracking in the Permian Basin oil and gas fields.

Paint texture on “Hot Planet, Cool Media.” Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

Obviously, hot and cool media can overlap in social media. We see Hubble images in Twitter and Instagram, while Google Earth can be both hot and cool, getting hotter the closer it zooms into Streetview but getting cooler the further it zooms out to show Earth floating amid the blackness. But the Milky Way on a tiny screen is not the same as the Milky Way above.

Rope Over Abyss (Nietzsche’s Telescope),” five panels, mixed-media and acrylic with pumice. 6 feet x 18 feet. Concept: Barry Vacker and Julia M. Hildebrand. Painting: Barry Vacker and Liza Samuel. June 2019. Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

Layers of Media: “Big Strata”

If we are in the era of Big Data, then surely we are inside a Big Strata. Extending from inside the human body, into society, across and above Earth’s surface and into outer space are layered networks of media technologies — a planetary media strata, a very big strata! The contemporary physical layers are obvious: Fiber optics and phone lines are underground and under the oceans, while mobile phones are above ground and drones are in the air and satellites are in space; the Large Hadron Collider is buried underground, while the Hubble Telescope is orbiting the planet and Voyager has exited the solar system.

Close up of the Hubble Space Telescope in “Rope Over Abyss (Nietzsche’s Telescope).” Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

Within those media layers are other media layers spanning the planet, permeating our cities, propelling data through our devices. A central infrastructure is the Internet, within which is the World Wide Web, within which are social media. Data centers, data bases, software, code. Layers of tweets, timelines, and status updates. Cell towers and satellite dishes. “Grids” on the surface, “Clouds” above, housing and being housed by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, the National Security Agency, and so on. Big strata, big data, big brother.

In “Rope OverAbyss (Nietzsche’s Telescope)” above, the technologies represent the layers of media that extend from underground to the Earth’s surface and into space, each shaping the human gaze; how and what we see. Starting from the left, the Large Hadron Collider is part of endo-media, technology that looks into things. The iPhone belongs to ego-media, technology for humans looking at humans and our activities. Drones and satellites are eco-media, technologies that look down onto Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope belongs to exo-media, technology for looking away from humanity into space. Media(S)cene is a model for a visual media ecology, a project for this seeing, this accelerating media evolution — on Earth, in space, into the Hubble universe of the 21st century.

“Hello From the Children of Planet Earth,” Mixed media with acrylic and pumice on stretched canvas; Hubble Deep Field image. 4 feet x 5’ feet. Full-size replica of the NASA Voyager Golden Record. Concept by Julia Hildebrand and Barry Vacker, canvas by Barry Vacker and Liza Samuel. June 2019. Photo: Barry Vacker, 2019.

“Hello From the Children of Planet Earth”

Led by Greta Thunberg, the 2019 Climate Strike featured the youth of the world marching to protect the ecosystems of Planet Earth. Strangely, it’s as if our Voyager canvas was anticipating the rising voice of the youth, to speak up on the fate of life on Planet Earth. Given climate disruption and the scale of the Anthropocene, youth of the world must think and act, not as tribes, but as members of the human species—the future of planetary civilization.

The Golden Record on Voyager. NASA, 1977, image in the public domain.

Launched in 1977 to map the outer planets of the solar system, Voyager is one of humanity’s great achievements. Voyager is part exo-medium and ego-medium, the outer most layer of the Media(S)cene. With its striking images of Saturn and Jupiter and their moons, Voyager shows the power of exo-media to generate awe and wonder in the gaze away from humanity. Now far outside the solar system, the Voyager spacecraft is hurtling through the voids of the Milky Way.

In case Voyager is discovered in some distant future, Carl Sagan’s team of scientists attached the famed Golden Record with images of humanity and its civilization along with greetings in dozens of languages. “Hello from the Children of Planet Earth” is the English-language greeting. The Golden Record is our shiny ego-exo-medium in the deep fields of outer space.

What kind of civilization — if any — will evolve out of the Anthropocene remains to be seen. Merely arguing against capitalism and consumer society is not nearly enough to counter the Anthropocene; we need a new philosophy of human existence and new systems of value derived from our actual place in the universe. It’s our view that the dark skies initiatives and cool media can combine with art and science to inspire a new human philosophy and counter-narrative against endless narcissism, accelerating consumption, unchecked sprawl and climate disruption.

That’s why we need a fresh understanding of the human event. Art and new theory are central to this project. Media(S)cene-Anthropocene, we’re in it. There is no exit.

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.

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