In 2021, more than a hundred scientists, artists, and humanists came together, and published Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene. We see it as a collective exploration to study and present environmental science through unconventional ways: cross-disciplinary, multi-genre, digital-and-interactive-based, empirically focused. Rejecting an anthropo-centric approach in studying the natural history of the Anthropocene, Feral Atlas directs its focus on feral ecologies, which are ecologies that become attuned to the human-built infrastructure programs but outside humans’ control. These feral effects they create and spread, as we argue, are the Anthropocene.
To visualise these Anthropocene effects that were triggered by specific historical conjunctures and created radical ecological and social changes, we created four large-scale illustrations titled “Invasion”, “Empire”, “Capital” and “Acceleration”. These historical and fantastical landscapes, through imaginative juxtapositions and narrative forming, illustrate how those imperial and industrial infrastructure programs with system-changing effects came into being and continued to take place.
Feral Atlas studies infrastructural effects. These infrastructures, including land, water, and air-scape modification projects, occur across time and locations, shifting distinctive ecosystems in unexpected ways, creating what’s now the “Patchy Anthropocene”.1 These Anthropocene patches can be found in various scales. Some are more easily noticeable, such as plantations and railway systems; some less, such as spots of fungal infections on leaves or pollutants in the air we breathe. Noticing, comprehending, and analysing environmental phenomena across scale is vital.
By carefully juxtaposing perspective-shifting, drawings can enhance an understanding of how various world histories that sometimes may seem irrelevant, contributed significantly to our current environmental catastrophes.
How do these Anthropocene patches create planetary effects? To answer the question, we need to pay our attention to infrastructure programs and consider what kind of new programs of infrastructure building, of ways of transforming land, water, and air, have challenged and altered the existing ecological and social dynamics and created new ones. In Feral Atlas, we began investigating particular historical conjunctures that initiated these dramatic changes in world-making processes - they have donating effects on planetary scales, hence the name “Anthropocene Detonators”.
Drawing is one of many possible ways of storytelling in the Anthropocene.
My understanding of this intricate world of the Anthropocene is through drawing; my goal is not only to analyse spatially across scales, but through various scales together. By carefully juxtaposing, overlapping, perspective-shifting, drawings can highlight useful relations and comparisons, and enhance an understanding of how various world histories that sometimes may seem irrelevant, contributed significantly to our current environmental catastrophes. It is, however, important to state that drawing is one of many possible ways of storytelling in the Anthropocene - it’s certainly not the only way, nor the best way. This essay offers an insight to how one of the diverse artistic modes of noticing, can start alternative means of critical discussions on environmental and social justice.
Narrative forming in Image Making
To many of us, narrative is perhaps one of the most familiar methods of learning about the outside world from an early age. Whether through literature, images, films, or music, storytelling helps us achieve a deeper understanding and resonance through empathising with constructed characters and incidents. In creating the Anthropocene Detonator Landscapes, we took inspiration from illustrations in children’s books:2 The ambition was to create a series of visual materials that tell complex yet comprehensible histories to scholarly and ordinary audiences alike. Indeed, what’s the point of creating a beautiful drawing in the Atlas, if it doesn’t serve the purpose of delivering a number of important messages? Humans have long been using narrative illustrations as ways of communicating, archiving and expressing, hence drawings can transcend language, disciplinary and cultural barriers, and become a power tool to reveal how intertwined, non-human and human histories are, and have always unfolded.
Drawings can transcend language, disciplinary and cultural barriers, and become a power tool to reveal how intertwined, non-human and human histories are, and have always unfolded.
Image-making skills and techniques from my previous architecture training were certainly crucial in creating the Anthropocene Detonator Landscapes. But instead of seeing the perspective of drawing as a method of projection required by professional conduct, all four drawings see the shift in perspectives also as a vital means of storytelling: distinctive perspectives are purposefully chosen to represent specific viewpoints by different historically and socially positioned individuals. Through encouraging viewers to place themselves into these imaginary lenses, the aim is to offer an analytical insight into some of the intentions or reactions behind these world-making and world-breaking processes. Who began these infrastructure-making-world processes? What were their motives or driving forces? And in that process, who suffered and who resisted? By presenting multiple more-than-human characters, the ambition of these drawings is to encourage viewers to shift away from the usual human-centric perspectives and comprehend the world around us, see its future as a collective act of multispecies survival rather than a sole victory for human-race.
Anthropocene Detonator Landscapes
Feifei Zhou, Nancy McDinny and Andy Everson, Invasion, 2021.
The first landscape was triggered by European invasion of other territories and began in the late 15th century. This invasive process eliminated and displaced more-than-human livelihoods, often violently. If one imagines the process of viewing the drawing as a journey, one shall begin this journey from the right-hand site of the canvas: colonial ships, including the La Santa María that took Christopher Columbus in his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, a British Man O' War from the Royal Navy of the 18th century, and the Western Black ships (directly translated from the Japanese word 黒船) during the Edo periods, marching towards their common goal of conquering new territories. The first sets of encounters takes place along the shore, behind the Spanish conquistadors investigating this new landscape and Australian aboriginals fighting against European mining prospectors, depicted in Nancy McDinny’s painting.3 This multispecies invasion expands to the centre of the canvas where cattle, following the lead of a logging truck, are slowly marching towards the burnt and devastated Amazonian rainforest. Both the forest and the cattle are victims of land grabbing and displacement. Further left to the domesticated cattle around the barns and mills are the neatly arranged suburban houses. It follows the banner “This is Indian Land” on the rail bridge which reminds us not to forget the histories that once took place here. The latter is a direct reference to the graffiti on the Garden River in Ontario, Canada, home to many First Nations communities. Just behind the bridge is a majestic glacier in Comox, B.C., illustrated by First Nation artist Andy Everson.4 It depicts the love and sorrow between his K’omoks ancestors and this symbolic landscape feature that is disappearing at an alarming rate as one of many devastating consequences of global warming.
Feifei Zhou, Larry Botchway, Empire, 2021.
The continuation of European expansion leads to the “Empire” landscape. The penetration of imperial power, often driven by trade and governance, began a new wave of land-and-waterscape modification programs. To understand the transformation of the landscapes it is key to first understand what was there before. The bottom of the drawing, in fact, depicts the top of a hill and marks the beginning of the gradual transition from Southeast Asia’s peasants farms to colonial crops. British colonists relied on local farmers to nurture the young teak plantations by allowing them to grow substantial crops such as cassava. These young teaks would eventually grow into full-scale, industrial teak plantations for timber exploitation, replacing local crops (amongst the plantation it is possible to see George Orwell shooting an elephant). On the right, too, the terrain is filled with other colonial crops such as opium poppy and tea plantations for imperial trades, guarded by an armed soldier. Patches of rice fields are forcibly turned into sugar plantations: sugar canes soon started dominating the landscape.
The penetration of imperial power, often driven by trade and governance, began a new wave of land-and-waterscape modification programs.
Where land meets the water, colonial infrastructures are implemented to create smoother surfaces and boundaries so water can be better controlled through dams, canals, ponds, water channels and pipes, as shown in the drawing. Under the intensified infrastructural transformation, metropoles were created to facilitate imperial governance and militarised trading.
Slavery was one of the most significantly violent and exploitative systems that was implemented by European colonists and traders.
Slavery was one of the most significantly violent and exploitative systems that was implemented by European colonists and traders. On the very right-hand side of the shore sits the Cape Coast Castle, a trans-Atlantic slave fort in Ghana. Above it, the infamous Brookes ship is heading towards its destination, an island with hybrid features of the southern United States and the Greater Caribbean, where native vegetation was stripped for monoculture sugar cane plantation. Below it, Ghanaian British artist and architect Larry Botchway presented an insert that shows the ecological and social struggles caused by industrial oil palm plantation in East Ghana.5 He used the illustrative metaphor of local farmers tearing the contract that restrained them through corporate controls, which symbolised the resistance of local communities against monocultural practices and colonial controls.
Feifei Zhou, Capital, 2021.
Capitalism reshaped our world, not just in a socio-economic sense. Industrial capitalism has quite literally reconfigured our landscapes into anthropogenic shapes on a global scale. Our new generation’s understanding of nature is increasingly confused by gridded plantations and industrial nurseries. Anthropogenic modification on territorial scales shape landscape into manageable sections. For example, industrial irrigation systems determine the form of a plantation; lateral move irrigation systems create rectangular-shaped plantations and central pivot irrigations create circular ones. One could argue that the causation is reservable, but the point remains: industrial infrastructures are the “masterplanner” of our contemporary landscapes and the goal behind this master planning is to homogenise Earth’s surface for better efficiency in commodifying natural resources. Every time we look down from an airplane window the terrains below us appear uncannily familiar despite our location, they are repetitive, gridded, homogenous.
Capitalism reshaped our world. Our new generation’s understanding of nature is increasingly confused by gridded plantations and industrial nurseries.
“Capital” landscape takes this God’s view as a starting point. Using an isometric projection, the drawing presents itself as a capitalist’s ideal master planning, turning nature into assets. The narrative starts from plantations on the top left, one can observe monoculture coffee plantations followed by banana trees that are being sprayed with pesticides, as well as cotton being harvested. The green patch on the right is kudzu, the infamous perennial vines imported from East Asia which terrorizes, covers, and suffocates local vegetations in North America to the extent that there is no trace of previous life. Clouded in the yellow smoke is the last remaining rainforest that will be soon taken over by pasture grass and cattle farms. Deforestation is happening elsewhere too: cargo trucks and cargo planes are carrying timber from the clear-cut conifer plantations on the far right, towards the metropole covered with skyscrapers. Below the 19th century Manchester factory blocks, one finds a meat processing plant, followed by a contemporary Amazon warehouse, cotton factory workers in the second wave of Industrial Revolution, supermarket shelves blend into the neatly stacked shipping containers waiting to be transported across the globe.
Industrial infrastructures are the “masterplanner” of our contemporary landscapes and the goal behind this master planning is to homogenise Earth’s surface for better efficiency in commodifying natural resources.
This seemingly orderly society, however, does not always function as planned; the traffic jam drawn disrupts the movement of daily life, causing anxiety. Nuclear plants are burning, leaking highly detrimental nuclear radiations for many generations of more-than-human lives. A toxic soup of industrial and agricultural effluents flows into streams, rivers and oceans, causing algal bloom and killing marine lives. The grid of the capitalist world is snapping, leaking and crumbling down.
Feifei Zhou, Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, Acceleration, 2021.
Human perspectives are insufficient for the study and understanding of the Anthropocene. The “Acceleration” landscape is designed from a non-human point of view: the viewer’s home is beneath the surface of the ocean and is contaminated by the residue and by-products of human-built infrastructures day by day. This is not a story of “out of sight, out of mind”, the majority of the Acceleration landscape is dedicated to show the haunting scene of human’s industrial legacy invading the homes of marine lives, spreading toxins and diseases.
It has been a common perception amongst some of the giant corporations that the radical sacrifice of ecology is inevitable and accepted for the economic growth.
Starting from the mid-20th century the production of goods surged to meet the ever-growing demand of the political economy. Until the recent decades (as we witness and experience increasing social impacts led by global activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion), it has been a common perception amongst some of the giant corporations that the radical sacrifice of ecology (livelihoods of non-humans, as well as underrepresented groups of human communities) is inevitable and accepted for the economic growth. During the past decades, excessive waste and pollutants accumulated, mixing and circulating around the world of Acceleration. From the top left of the image it is possible to see natural gas extraction above the extensive, seemingly-never-ending influx of domestic garbage pouring into the landfill sites; cargo ships spilling engine oil in the ocean, mixing with the chemical effluent from pharmaceutical factories into a toxic cocktail. Below the piglets are rows of pork factories, where antibiotics are fed to the piglets to boost their growth for sales. The yellow liquid spewing out of the pipe into one’s neighbourhood is the phosphorus runoff used on rice farms (on the right). Above the banana plantations is once again the familiar supermarket shelves, but one might not notice the package blueberries that end up in our breakfast cereal bowls are in fact picked from nuclear contaminated sites. They are also visible the Filipino duo of artists Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho’s inserts of their contemporary art installation:6 two split body parts of the monster “manananggal”, representing an intangible but unstoppable force driving us through the Anthropocene. The top half of the female body hangs above the colonial sugarcane plantation in the Philippines, guarding this strangely modified land that the artist once called home but can hardly recognise now. Her legs are caught up in this marine plastic jungle, barely connected to her body. The split figure of manananggal floats askew in Acceleration, embodying the disjunctions in contemporary society, making the point that the dump we humans have created in the world of Acceleration will surely come back and haunt us all.
Anthropocene Detonators offer a theory of such history and relations, they present an opportunity to begin new sets of conversations for the near-future interventions.
Art is a powerful tool to explore the multi-media possibilities of spatial analysis in the Anthropocene. The environmental challenge is no doubt an urgent matter, but it’s a common misconception that we, designers, need to come up with solutions as soon as possible. This techno-solutionism sometimes has counterproductive effects, precisely because of the lack of time and patience acknowledged and required for a deeper understanding of ecological and social histories and relations.Anthropocene Detonators offer a theory of such history and relations,7 they present an opportunity to begin new sets of conversations for the near-future interventions. We can only design for a better future if we understand our past.
We can only design for a better future if we understand our past.
This text is excerpted and adapted from “Historical and Fantastical Landscapes: The Making of Anthropocene Detonators”, Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene, Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2021. To experience the Atlas, please go to feralatlas.org.
Feifei Zhou is a Chinese-born spatial and visual designer. She currently teaches MA and BA Architecture at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, and was a guest researcher at Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA), during which she co-edited the digital publication Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene (Stanford University Press, 2020) with anthropologists Anna Tsing, Jennifer Deger, and Alder Keleman Saxena. Her work explores spatial, cultural and ecological impacts of the industrialised built and natural environment. Zhou was a finalist in the Harvard GSD Wheelwright Prize 2022.
1 Anna Tsing, Andrew S. Mathews and Nils Bubandt, “Patchy Anthropocene: Landscape Structure, Multispecies History, And The Retooling Of Anthropology". In Current Anthropology 60 (2019): S186-S197. doi:10.1086/703391.
2 The most significant inspiration for us is Anno's journey by Mitsumasa Anno.
3 Story of Mayawagu, Nancy McDinny, acrylic on linen, 2013.
4 Heritage, Andy Everson, giclee, 2004.
5 Untitled, Larry Botchway, digital illustration, 2020.
6 WAKA WAKA GUDETAMANANGGAL, Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, modified mannequin and various materials, split into two halves, 2016.
7 Tsing, Anna L., Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou. 2021. “Anthropocene Detonators”, Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene, Redwood City: Stanford University Press
Burtynsky, Edward, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nick de Pencier. Anthropocene. Göttingen: Steidl, 2021.
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Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Andrew S. Mathews, and Nils Bubandt. "Patchy Anthropocene: Landscape Structure, Multispecies History, And The Retooling Of Anthropology". Current Anthropology 60 (2019): S186-S197. doi:10.1086/703391.