This is the second piece in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 1.
Laura nodded her head and began to respond…
“I was surprised about the pessimism of your generation. Dorothea [von Hantelmann] asked me what I thought about the class, and I said, wow, I’ve never had a class of students of your age who are so pessimistic about the future. Yet, while you are very pessimistic, you were also extremely analytic. You were extremely well-informed. I do think Covid has played a big role in how you are feeling. How all of us are feeling – it’s a very difficult historical moment. It’s been difficult to watch students deal with mental health issues which have arisen due to the pandemic in the past two years. I was also sad to hear that many of you feel as though having children is now an ideological position rather than a personal decision. It was clearly not anecdotal. It’s really something that many of you are thinking about. In my opinion, no one should have any say about whether you should have children or not. But I think your generation is grappling with a lot of issues.”
I responded to Laura’s comment, saying:
“I would say that in some ways we can’t really be hedonistic because of Covid. I mean, I think digital escapism is very much a thing, but I also wonder how effective it is, since social media does generate these very dystopian narratives. A lot of the media that we consume is disaster media, even when it’s humorous. I think even in trying to escape, there’s this immediacy to our time that we can’t really get away from. On that topic, what was so weirdly paradoxical in some of the moments when we were reading the theorists Latour and Haraway, was that they voiced this necessity to return to the earth, and we were ingesting the theory and very much agreeing with it, while also simultaneously witnessing this increasing push towards tech. I also think a very interesting moment in the class was when the metaverse was announced. It created such apt conversations. But it was also difficult to witness how this incited more of this fearful and disastrous conception of the future.”
Laura agreed, continuing:
“It’s difficult to reconcile because we’re talking about earth and being earthly and returning to the earth. All that has to do with physicality and so on, but then we have a complete parallel universe that’s continuing to emerge. And it looks like it’s consolidating and we already have the internet and the metaverse is just one step beyond that. That brings in so many questions, especially at a time in which living on earth is complicated by climate change, Covid, and war. The question is now what happens when we have this alternative way of living in a world where all of that does not literally exist, where we don’t have a body, and we don’t have the limitations that our physical bodies contain. It’s very much like the matrix. Is there a point of intersection between those two realities? These are the questions of the time we live in, and the theoretical scaffolding that we have doesn’t prepare us for it. I think this is also the reason why it’s very important to start thinking about education in a way that is going to allow us to think creatively. We have to start thinking about how knowledge is produced as a way to better integrate into this accelerating changing reality.”
The conversation soon turned to the topic of our habitability logbooks, archives of each student’s independent research which culminated into two projects throughout the duration of the semester. I began by saying:
“I felt very thankful that you gave us a space to go anywhere with what we wanted to research, but then I think I also felt simultaneously nervous about that, because I think generally the freedom of thought in the class in some ways was intimidating for me. It is always a practice to generate one’s own ideas in a classroom setting, and I don’t think many courses push students to do so as much as “Contemporary Art and the Anthropocene” did.
But it was very interesting because I think we ingest so much information every day. Even in very minimal ways, like looking at a climate change meme on instagram that you soon forget.
But what was great about the habitability log book was that many people took it as an opportunity to focus on this very random assortment of media that they ingest and actually research it and understand for themselves why it’s important. I mean, that was very much true for me. I looked into VR farming, which was originally shared to me as a joke from a friend, because I guess it’s well known that I’m into farming. This friend sent me an article about a Russian farmer who was using VR goggles with his cows. It was funny to me initially, but then I became quite curious about it and realized yet again the implications of our reliance on technology and how now it’s not only a human aspect of life, but we’re also inflicting that onto the lives of non-humans. What consequences does that have? I think it was really interesting to develop an idea like that. The video presentation was also an entirely different process of gathering information and considering which ideas were meaningful, but then trying to formulate how to present that in a way that was also artististic, entertaining and insightful.
Laura then explained her thinking behind the habitability logbook, and her ideas for the course:
I thought so as well. And the whole approach is risky because I try to nurture your freedom as much as possible, and your creativity, and your own agency because I think that’s what we’re here for —giving you tools so that you can use your own ideas and your own possibilities to navigate this world, which is very complex. One of your questions was why I opted for this course. Well, one of the reasons is that I’m an artist and have my bachelor’s degree in fine arts. That is my basis and I love it, and that’s something I think I have very much in common with most of my students. Most of my students are artists or are artistic in some way. So that is integrated in you, and you already feel that necessity to process things in your own way with whatever media. That is one part of it. And the other is that one of the most important approaches for my way of educating is learning by doing. This idea comes from John Dewey, and I think it’s just so much more efficient for students to be really engaged with what they’re doing, and to be passing it through their own filter and having to make their own decisions.
It’s about really engaging with the material and the environment. It just makes a completely different educational experience. And of course the habitability is a creative project which might be also very challenging for people who are not used to developing that kind of knowledge. But my goodness, what amazing results that we got!
We reflected on some of the projects before turning to the final topic of our conversation. They encompassed so many topics, from discussing decolonization in the Anthropocene to alternative forms of creating plastic. Laura said, they were yet another example of how so many interests and ideas that are relevant to the Anthropocene found their way into the course through the independent research of students..
Do you think the class was successful? And if it was, why was it successful? I also wonder how you think the course would differ if you were to do it with another group of students?
Well, it’s always different. Sometimes you teach exactly the same to a group of different people and the class experience is still going to be different because we’re all working together. It’s that kind of dynamic. But for me, our class was really wonderful. It was a highlight of my week to join our seminar each Tuesday, and I felt that we improved every time. The class felt very symbiotic— I feel that we were going through a similar experience of something that was happening to all of us. Not so much experiencing something that I had created as the leader of the seminar, but something that we were creating all together. There was so much room for creativity because of the theory and the artists that we studied, the visit to the Hamburger Bahnhof, and the conference on agency and the Anthropocene. These were the basis of our work. There were many things to discuss that to me the class always felt very short. Always. Even now I can imagine many more things that we could’ve done— an exhibition with your final videos for example. I would’ve also loved for you to talk to more artists. I think with the material we covered, we could have gone on for the whole year.
There are few occasions in which an opportunity to reflect on a course with a professor in such a guided format is available. I am very thankful to Laura for taking the time to speak with me and be vulnerable about her feelings surrounding the course.